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Exactly 17 months from the day Sean Bell, Trent Benefield and Joseph Guzman were shot in a barrage of 50 police bullets, the fate of three detectives was decided with a 10-minute statement issued before 9:30 a.m. Friday morning.
"The court finds each defendant not guilty of each of the respective counts in the indictment of which they were charged," Judge Arthur Cooperman said as he ended the explanation of his verdict.
The scene inside the Queens Criminal Court room was hushed and tense as the judge laid out his reasons as to why he believed Detectives Gescard Isnora, Michael Oliver and Marc Cooper were justified in opening fire on Nov. 25, 2006.
Like the minutes before a boxing match, supporters of both sides in the case packed the benches to the right and left of the courtroom and anxiously awaited the judge's arrival that morning.
On the right side were Bell's parents, fiance Nicole Paultre-Bell, Benefield, Guzman and nearly 100 of their supporters, including the Rev. Al Sharpton. On the left side sat Patrick Lynch, president of the Police Benevolent Association, and other union members. Standing between them and the judge were two dozen court officers, each one unarmed.
As the judge took his seat, he called the defense and prosecution to bench for a brief conference,which signaled to some members of the audience what the decision would be. Bell's parents, William and Valerie, whispered to themselves as they saw Oliver's attorney, James Culleton, smile on his way back to his seat.
Cooperman read his 1,700-word verdict with a little gravel in his voice, stopping only once to order a crying baby out of the courtroom. The child turned out to be Benefield's. His inconsistent testimony and belligerent behavior on the stand were some of the factors that led to the exoneration of the three officers.
"At times the testimony didn't make sense," said Cooperman, who also criticized the detectives' conduct the night of the shooting in two separate references to "carelessness and incompetence."
After he delivered the verdict and left the courtroom, a quick gasp filled the courtroom from the Bell family side followed by silence. Paultre-Bell immediately broke down and left the courtroom, refusing to talk to the media. Guzman, who wore a white T-shirt with the words "Sean Bell boys" stretched boldly across his bulky chest, left the same way.
Benefield was outspoken in his frustration, crying and cursing at the justice system as he walked out on his own.
The three officers let out sighs and quickly left through the back entrance. Oliver, who faced up to 25 years in prison on manslaughter charges, appeared to have wiped away a tear from his right eye before he left.
©2008 Community Newspaper Group
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