The Department of Justice decided Tuesday that it will not file a civil rights case against the officers involved in the Sean Bell killing, due to a lack of evidence.
“The system disappoints us again,” said Bell’s mother, Valerie. “I’m at a loss for words. You pray and you think everything is going to be alright, but it’s the same old same old.”
Police officers fired 50 shots at Bell outside a Jamaica strip club on his wedding day in 2006. Two other men, who were passengers in the Nissan Altima Bell was driving, Trent Benefield and Joseph Guzman, were wounded. None of the men were armed at the time.
After a review by federal agents and prosecutors, which included the examination of witness statements, crime scene evidence, ballistics reports, reconstruction analysis, medical reports, state grand jury proceedings and the state trial record, the federal department concluded that there was not enough evidence to show that the officers had intentionally violated Bell’s civil rights.
“Neither accident, mistake, fear, negligence, nor bad judgment is sufficient to establish a federal criminal civil rights violation,” according to a statement from the Justice Department.
The victim’s mother disagrees.
“They said the officers weren’t going out with the intent to kill someone, but yes they were,” Valerie Bell said. “If you shoot someone 50 times, what does that mean — common sense tells you they were trying to kill someone.”
Three of the five detectives involved in the shooting — Gescard Isnora, Michael Oliver and Marc Cooper — went to trial on charges ranging from manslaughter to reckless endangerment, but were acquitted by a state court in April 2008. All five men, however, remain on modified duty.
“It leaves me feeling empty inside,” Bell’s father, William, said of this week’s federal ruling. “What kind of laws do we have to protect our citizens? In the old days they use to hang us, now they are doing it legally. If you can shoot a man 50 times and get away with it then you can get away with anything.”
City Councilman Leroy Comrie also expressed dissatisfaction with the ruling.“I was extremely disappointed that the Justice Department couldn’t find enough evidence to prosecute the officers in this case,” he said. “I was extremely disappointed that the officers could escape after their misuse of deadly force.”
Bell, Benefield and Guzman, were leaving the victim’s bachelor party when they were approached by undercover police officers who thought the men were getting a gun out of the car to settle a dispute inside the club, but no weapon was ever recovered.
Trial testimony revealed that Bell had been drunk when he left the club and gunned the car toward cops as he attempted to flee, striking Isnora in the leg.
“I am gratified by the Justice Department’s decision,” Michael Palladino, president of the Detectives’ Endowment Association said in a statement. “The Bell family’s disappointment is a result of the misinformation disseminated by Al Sharpton from the very beginning. He made this case into something that it was not. Once again, in an effort to push his personal agenda, he did a disservice to the Bell family and the entire community.”
Now that the federal investigation is over, the Police Department is free to pursue disciplinary action on its own, which could result in the officers losing their jobs. Queens District Attorney Richard Brown has pledged his office’s “full cooperation,” as these internal steps are taken.