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3 officers charged in wedding-day shooting

Exact counts in the N.Y. slaying of Sean Bell will be revealed Monday.

March 17, 2007|Erika Hayasaki | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — A grand jury on Friday voted to indict three of the five police officers involved in the killing of an unarmed black man on his wedding day, according to attorneys in the case.

The incident in November sparked widespread accusations of racism and police brutality and was followed by weeks of rallies in memory of 23-year-old Sean Bell, who died in a torrent of 50 bullets.

The official grand jury decision is sealed until Monday, when the district attorney's office will announce the exact criminal charges against the three officers who were responsible for firing the most shots: Michael Oliver, who fired 31 times, Gescard Isnora, who fired 11, and Marc Cooper, who fired four. Two of the officers are black and one is white.

Two other officers who fired three shots or fewer were not indicted.

Michael Palladino, president of the New York detectives union, said Friday at a news conference that the grand jury decision "will have a chilling effect, not only on New York City detectives and New York City police, but law enforcement across the country."

Officers who try to act in good faith to protect the public, Palladino said, will now realize there is "no margin for error."

At a news conference in Harlem, the Rev. Al Sharpton, who has counseled Bell's family and friends on the case, said: "We're not looking for revenge, we're looking for it to not happen again. The only way you make sure it doesn't happen again is you stop it and you punish it."

Sharpton said time will tell what the trial will bring, and although the officers might feel humiliated, "they will never feel the humiliation of a young lady waiting for her wedding and her husband not being there because he was taken in a hail of bullets."

Palladino called news of the indictments especially disappointing after a violent week for New York City police.

On Tuesday, an officer was stabbed in the head at a Brooklyn subway station, and an hour later another was shot in a Harlem restaurant. Both survived. On Wednesday, two unarmed auxiliary policemen were killed by a gunman on a busy block of bars and restaurants in Greenwich Village: Ex-Marine David R. Garvin killed a bartender before shooting the volunteer officers who tried to stop him, Nicholas T. Pekearo, 28, an aspiring writer, and Yevgeniy Marshalik, 19, a New York University student.

Friday's grand jury decision is the beginning of a long legal process, said Philip Karasyk, attorney for 28-year-old Isnora, who fired the first shot. He said that his client was upset over the news but that by the end of the trial, "I have confidence all of the officers will be exonerated."

Karasyk said he respected the grand jury's decision but added, "It's quite another thing to actually be in the line of fire and be out there in the street and have to make a split-second decision."

Bell was killed around 4 a.m. Nov. 25 by undercover officers at the Kalua Cabaret, a strip club where he was attending his bachelor party. Officers who fired at Bell testified that they thought he and his friends were armed. Police later searched the car and found no gun.

Bell, a former milk delivery man, was supposed to marry his high school sweetheart and mother of his two children later that day. She legally took his name after his death, becoming Nicole Paultre Bell.

New York police training procedures instruct officers to fire three shots, pause and reassess the situation. Under state law, police can use deadly force if they believe their lives or others' lives are in immediate danger.

The 23 grand jurors considered second-degree murder, manslaughter or criminally negligent homicide charges in connection with Bell's death; and attempted murder, assault or reckless endangerment in the wounding of Bell's friends, Trent Benefield, 23, and Joseph Guzman, 31.

The shooting stirred anger and resentment reminiscent of the outrage over the 1999 death of Amadou Diallo, an African immigrant who was shot at the front door of his Bronx apartment building by four officers who mistook his wallet for a gun. They fired 41 shots, hitting Diallo 19 times. The officers were acquitted of criminal charges.

In the Bell case, the grand jury deliberated for three days, as city police remained on alert in case of tension arising from the decision. In a radio address, Mayor Michael Bloomberg said this week: "The police will be there and will ensure safety and peace on the streets of our city, and I don't even think they're going to be needed."

The streets were calm Friday night, as a snowstorm blanketed the city and residents awaited Monday's announcement.

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