The scene outside the New York courtroom was tense but peaceful Friday morning, as a judge declared three police detectives not guilty of manslaughter, assault or reckless endangerment in the shooting death of Sean Bell, who was killed outside a strip club in New York in 2006 in a barrage of 50 bullets.
The verdict prompted a number of Bell's supporters to storm out of the courtroom, with screams audible outside the chambers moments later, according to The New York Times. Outside the courtroom, thousands more supporters of Bell — who was 23 years old when he was gunned down just hours before he was to marry — gathered, shouting and taunting police, who were out in force in case any violent protests broke out.
Bell's fiancee, Nicole Paultre Bell, and his parents were in the courtroom when the verdict was read in the case, which became a flashpoint for the city and many in the hip-hop community, including 50 Cent, Papoose and Prodigy — all of whom recorded songs or wrote lyrics about the shooting. After the incident, Nas released a statement to MTV News, saying, "The cops need to be charged the way gangsters are charged."
As the judge read his decision, CNN reported that Paultre Bell ran from the courtroom saying, "I've got to get out of here."
After a seven-week trial, Justice Arthur J. Cooperman said that many of the prosecution's witnesses, including Bell's friends and the two wounded victims, were simply not believable. "The testimony of those witnesses just didn't make sense," he said, adding that some of the witnesses contradicted themselves and that their demeanor on the witness stand helped to decide the case, CNN reported.
After reading through the timeline of the evening, Cooperman concluded that the response by Detectives Gescard F. Isnora, Michael Oliver and Marc Cooper, "with respect to each defendant, was not found to be criminal." The men were found not guilty of the eight counts — five felonies and three misdemeanors— they were facing. Among other charges, Isnora and Oliver had faced first- and second-degree manslaughter, with a possible sentence of 25 years in prison. Cooper was charged with two counts of reckless endangerment. According to the Times, they could still face disciplinary action from the police department, though a decision on that will be delayed until it is decided whether federal charges will be filed against them.
The prosecution attempted to show that the shooting was the result of a frightened, possibly enraged group of disorganized police officers who began their shift that night hoping to arrest a prostitute or two at the club, which was being investigated for prostitution, guns and drug dealing. Suspecting Bell and his friends of possessing a gun, the prosecution said the detectives quickly got in over their heads.
The defense portrayed the shooting as the tragic end to a justified confrontation in which Isnora had what his lawyers described as solid reasons to believe he was "the only thing standing between Mr. Bell's car and a drive-by shooting around the corner." Witnesses claimed to have heard talk of guns during a heated argument between an intoxicated Bell and a stranger outside the club. And witnesses said that as Bell and his friends left the club, the undercover detectives believed that one of the men was going to retrieve a gun from Bell's car, so they followed the men and called for backup.
According to testimony, Bell and two friends got in the car, with Bell driving, and the detectives drew their weapons. Bell panicked to get away from what he believed were armed men. The detectives, who said they thought Bell was trying to run them over and that their lives were in danger, began firing. No gun was found near Bell or his friends.
Once word of the verdict leaked out to the crowds gathered outside the courtroom, CNN reported that one woman shouted at a black police officer, "How can you be proud to wear that uniform? Stand down! Stop working for the masters!"
The case drew immediate response from the hip-hop community, with Papoose dropping a song just a week after the shooting titled "50 Shots," which sampled Sam Cooke's anthem "A Change Is Gonna Come" and featured the lines, "Mike Oliver said his gun jammed, he the main one/ 12-year veteran and don't know how to use a gun." Paultre Bell was featured in a controversial ad from Rocawear as part of their "I Will Not Lose" campaign, which launched just before the trial began. In addition, 50 Cent has referenced the case on cuts, and Prodigy also has several references to Bell on his just released album, HNIC2, on a track titled "Field Marshall P."