Revolution#124, March 23,2008
Whitewash of Sean Bell’s Murder by Police Continues in Court
“This whole thing is so twisted. You’ve got the victims—Sean and the other two with him that night—being attacked like they’re the criminals, and the criminals—the cops who killed Sean—being treated like they’re the victims. But you know, I’ve been at other trials of police who’ve murdered Black people and here’s the thing. It plays out pretty much the same way every time.”
This comment, made to me by a Black woman as she and I waited for a 15-minute recess at the Sean Bell trial to end, reflected the feelings of others who have come to the Queens, N.Y., courthouse almost every day since the trial began on Febrary 25, to hear testimony in the case of the three NYPD detectives indicted in the killing on November 25, 2006, of 23-year-old Sean Bell and serious wounding of two of his friends, Joseph Guzman and Trent Benefield, in a lethal rain of 50 bullets, hours before Sean was to be married.
The courtroom, presided over by Judge Arthur Cooperman—who will decide the outcome of this case since the cops opted to have a bench trial rather than a trial by jury—is physically divided down the middle as if by a large wall, although there is no wall there. On one side sit the three cop defendants and their attorneys, and behind them, on the half dozen or so rows of wooden benches, sit members of the NYPD, decked out in their best suits and with U.S. flag and Police Benevolent Association pins neatly placed in their lapels.
On the other side sit the prosecutors, members of the Queens D.A.’s office, who act quite uncomfortable and unhappy about having to try police officers. After all, they are much more accustomed to prosecuting Black youth. And behind the prosecutors sit members and supporters of the Sean Bell family, including his still-mourning mother and father, Valerie and William, who sometimes have fled the courtroom when testimony or photos depicting the death scene have become all too stark and horrific. Also there every day is Sean’s fiancée, Nicole Paultre Bell, who was the first person to testify and who broke down on the stand when she had to describe seeing Sean at the hospital morgue shortly after he was murdered.
Testimony by witnesses and video footage has painted a picture of a wild terror, as police blasted away with 50 shots at Sean Bell and his friends. Security video from a nearby AirTrain station showed transit police scrambling for cover and shouting at passengers to duck, as one of the police bullets shattered a window.
A woman who lives in the vicinity of the club where Sean Bell was murdered testified that she hollered to her kids, “Don’t come out of your room!” The woman, Maria Rodrigues, testified that as she and her children hid in their beds, a bullet from the police barrage came through a window in her home and lodged a lampshade in her house. Another neighbor, Bernardino Dossantos, went to see what happened. He described how the police treated the victims of the shooting: “I see a man. He got the belly down to the concrete. He got the handcuffs down to the back. He got blood to the head.” Dossantos’ SUV was also hit by police bullets.
But it is Sean Bell and his two friends, Joseph Guzman and Trent Benefield— both of them seriously wounded—who are being treated as the criminals in this trial. Just two days after the 50-bullet barrage, the authorities, and the ever-compliant mass media, began to paint a picture of Sean, Joseph, and Trent as criminals involved with drugs. They concocted a tale, which they soon dropped but not before the mass media had played it to the max, that there might have been a “fourth man” on the scene that night standing close to Sean’s car with a gun in his hand.
In the last week or so of the trial, the three cops’ lawyers have opened up a new line of attack on Sean, Joseph, and Trent. They say that a small amount of marijuana, less than an eighth of an ounce, was found in a plastic bag on Liverpool Street, not far from where Sean, Joseph, and Trent were fired upon. As if, if this were the case, it justified killing Sean Bell.
The defense attorneys are also arguing that the collection of ballistic and other evidence that night by the NYPD crime scene unit was tainted, and that evidence was tampered with or removed by police investigators. That the forensic examination of Bell’s car didn’t happen until 24 hours after the shooting, and that all kinds of people had access to the vehicle before it was officially examined by a police investigator. And that during the initial “investigation” of the vehicle by other police, investigators didn't note bullets that were lying in the car in plain sight. And defense lawyers got a police investigator to testify—in cross-examination—that he had changed a statement made by one of the police who did the shooting.
If in fact there were these kinds of instances of corrupted and “missed” evidence, the most charitable explanation is callous carelessness by the authorities over the death of a Black man at the hands of the police. Much more likely is that all this contamination of the investigation and the crime scene was a conscious and systematic cover-up, as the system scrambled to deal with public outrage over the murder of Sean Bell. But whatever combination of callous carelessness and/or conscious cover-up was in effect, the“investigation” in the aftermath of the shooting worked to ensure that if the murdering police went to trial, the evidence would be covered up or compromised. And nothing in this trial is getting to the bottom of that.
The cops’ lawyers opened the trial by referring to Sean and his two friends as part of the “negative element.” This “negative element” is code for Black people and other people of color, especially the youth. It’s code for the people who this system has no jobs for, no decent education, no decent health care or housing, no decent future, no hope. Code that stands for “license to kill,” for the armed enforcers of this system to murder at will Black and other youth—who are considered to be “dangerous surplus population” by the system. And to do this without being punished, since it is what they are supposed to do and are trained to do.
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