Revolution #126, April 13, 2008
Powerful Court Testimony Brings Back Horror of Sean Bell’s Murder by NYPD
From a correspondent
A packed courtroom listened last week to Joseph Guzman describe what happened the night of November 25, 2006, when he, Sean Bell, and Trent Benefield were shot in a 50-bullet barrage by undercover New York City cops minutes after Sean’s bachelor party had ended. Guzman thought they all were going to die. He survived, badly wounded, as did Trent Benefield. Sean Bell did not.
In his testimony, Joseph Guzman took the courtroom with him back to the horror of that moment. He said he tried to escape the shots coming into the passenger side of their car by climbing through the window on the driver’s side where Sean was, cutting his hand on the broken glass. Joseph ended up slouched over Sean, thinking they were both dying. Joseph told Sean Bell, “I love you, S.” “‘I love you, too,’” he said Sean whispered. “Then he stopped moving.”
Guzman testified that the three friends left the Club Kalua as it was closing. Sean was getting married in just a few hours, and they joked about whether Sean should go home to his fiancée Nicole. They were feeling good, planning to drive to a diner for breakfast.
They had some friction with a guy outside the club who they thought might have a gun because of the way he was keeping his hand in his jacket pocket. Joseph said to Sean, “You’re getting married later today, we don’t need this, let’s go,” and they kept walking around the corner to Sean’s car.
Moments after they climbed into the car and began to pull out, a minivan—which turned out to be a police van—blocked their way and there was a collision. At the same time, Joseph saw a man—who turned out to be an undercover cop—very close to their car with a gun pointed at them. Joseph told the court: “I’m looking in his eyes, man, he shot me. Everything slowed down. But I’m looking at him shooting me. He’s continuing, he’s continuing to shoot.… We in the car, I’m like ‘S, let’s do it, let’s do it, this is not a robbery, this is—they trying to kill us, this is not a robbery.… Let’s do it, we gotta go. We gotta get out of here. They trying to kill us, they shooting.’”
Sean first tried to reverse, crashing into a gate after mounting the sidewalk, and then lurched forward again, colliding again with the minivan. By then, shots were flying everywhere.
As they have tried to do throughout the trial, the lawyers for the three cops indicted for killing Sean Bell and wounding Guzman and Benefield proceeded to insinuate that the two young Black men and one young Latino man were responsible for what happened because they were part of the “criminal element.” The cops’ lawyers brought up Guzman’s felony record and how he was involved with a rap group called Young Thugs. After answering dozens of questions about his criminal record, Joseph said, “My record wasn’t on my forehead that night!” When one of the lawyers pressed Joseph (who is engaged) about whether he was flirting with one of the Club Kalua bartenders during the party, he angrily replied, “What does this got to do with you all shooting Sean Bell?” One of the lawyers for the cops accused Guzman of saying to one of his friends, “Yo, go get my gun.” Joseph retorted, “No, I did not say that. Where I’m from, that’s not a good bluff.” As is well known by now, there was no gun in Sean’s car.
One of the police lawyers implied that Guzman’s outrage on the stand showed that it was Guzman who had provoked the police shooting. He claimed that Guzman’s anger was “exactly what was going on in front of that club… You was doing what you wanted to do, which is what you’re doing right now.”
All of this was too much for the supporters of the Bell family in the audience, and the judge warned people twice to remain quiet or he might have to clear the courtroom.
In the last three weeks the trial has included graphic medical testimony about the shots that killed Sean Bell and left Joseph Guzman and Trent Benefield seriously wounded. Sometimes Sean’s parents have had to leave the courtroom.
The cops’ testimony has shown that they didn’t expect any of the three to survive. Michael Oliver fired 31 times, emptying his gun, reloading and emptying it again. Oliver’s grand jury testimony was read into the trial record. When asked in the grand jury if he was shooting to kill, he said the police are trained to aim for “center mass,” meaning vital organs, and “to keep shooting until you eliminate the threat.” Michael Carey, one of the cops on the scene who was not charged, testified that he only stopped shooting when another cop stepped into his line of fire.
The police are not lying when they testify that what happened that night is exactly what they are trained and supposed to do. Sean’s murder at Club Kalua, and the shooting of Joseph Guzman and Trent Benefield, have nothing to do with “poorly trained police” or “poorly managed operations.” Millions of young Blacks and Latinos who can’t be profitably exploited by a globalized imperialist system are criminalized and incarcerated. One in nine Black men in his twenties is now in prison or jail, and thousands have been killed by the police. The Stolen Lives Project (stolenlives.org) has documented the deaths of over 2,000 people—mostly young, mostly Black and Latino—at the hands of the police in the 1990s. The project is working to document the many more killed since then.
As a special ed teacher who has been attending the trial told Revolution: “These kids, even at a very young age, like six or seven, look out at the world and feel helpless and hopeless. They don’t see any future for themselves. So then some of them end up doing things maybe they shouldn’t do, but how can you blame them? Ultimately, they’re not the ones to blame.”
The only reason there is a trial at all of the police who killed Sean Bell and almost killed Joseph Guzman and Trent Benefield, the only reason Sean and his friends aren’t just three more hidden or forgotten victims, is because thousands of outraged people took to the streets after the murder. This case must not be allowed to end with acquittals or just a wrist slap for the cops. If that happens, it would be a profound and intolerable injustice carried out by this vicious system. Enough is enough.
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