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Following Acquittal of NYPD Officers in Sean Bell Killing, Advocates Call for Special Prosecutor in Police Brutality Cases

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In New York, a coalition of civil rights advocates are calling for a permanent state-level special prosecutor to handle police brutality cases following the acquittal of three NYPD detectives in the killing of Sean Bell. The twenty-three-year-old Bell died in a hail of fifty police bullets on the morning of what would have been his wedding day in November 2006. Two of his friends were also injured in the shooting. All three men were unarmed. We speak with Sanford Rubinstein, the attorney representing Sean Bell’s fiancee Nicole Paultre-Bell, and with Jessica Sanclemente, the co-coordinator of People’s Justice. [includes rush transcript]

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StoryNov 21, 2007Nicole Paultre Bell Leads Vigil to Mark One-Year Since Police Shooting of Her Unarmed Fiancé Sean Bell
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: A New York State Supreme Court justice has acquitted three New York police detectives of all charges related to the fifty shots that killed Sean Bell, an unarmed African American man, on November 25, 2006. It was in the early morning before the twenty-three-year old Bell was to be married. He was sitting in a car with two friends outside a strip club in Jamaica, Queens.

Judge Arthur Cooperman said Friday the NYPD officers who trained their guns on Bell and his friends were not guilty of all charges of manslaughter, assault and reckless endangerment. He said it was reasonable for the detectives to fear that someone might have had a gun. There was immediate relief within the New York Police Department.

    MICHAEL PALLADINO: And we are relieved today. And how do I spell “relief”? N-O-T-G-U-I-L-T-Y. Not guilty. That’s how I spell “relief.”

AMY GOODMAN: But for Sean Bell’s fiancee Nicole Paultre-Bell and many others who took to the streets this weekend, the verdict was a complete miscarriage of justice. Activists and community members organized a protest march outside the Queens District Attorney office Friday evening. Democracy Now! producer Jeffrey Hagerman spoke to some of those at the march.

    CITY COUNCILMEMBER CHARLES BARON: I think the system stinks, and black people better protect themselves by any means necessary.

    REPORTER: And why do you say that?

    CITY COUNCILMEMBER CHARLES BARON: Because the system’s not protecting us. That judge just told us today we don’t mean nothing, that our lives aren’t worth anything.

    REV. HERBERT DAUGHERTY: I made a note before I left home, and I said my heart cries out for justice, but my experience has taught me what to expect, and therefore the decision doesn’t come as any shock to me. I’ve been at this fifty years.

    HERMAN HUBBARD: We should be tearing down the businesses in the Bronx, in Queens, in Harlem and all over America. They do nothing but appease us.

    PROTESTER: No justice!

    CROWD: No peace!

    PROTESTER: No justice!

    CROWD: No peace!

    PROTESTER: No justice!

    CROWD: No peace!

    UNIDENTIFIED: They had no business pulling their guns out from the beginning. I mean, you can’t go out your house today without worrying what’s going to come the other way. This young man was having a good time. Why is he now six feet under the ground?

    UNIDENTIFIED: Once I heard the verdict, I mean, I was like in tears, I mean, literally crying, because it is — I mean, it’s just so painful to know that these officers are able to shoot and kill us and get away with it. This system is not here to protect us. It doesn’t support us. I mean, it’s just sad that we have to be out here lobbying and protesting this injustice. It shouldn’t be like that. Our ancestors already fought for all of this. Why are we still out here doing this?

    UNIDENTIFIED: I certainly think that there needs to be a shift from the militaristic type of policing that we see in communities of color and lower-income communities to more compassionate, respectful and community-based policing. The community needs to be more involved in the decisions of who’s policing their neighborhoods.

AMY GOODMAN: Meanwhile, civil rights leader Reverend Al Sharpton vowed to shut down New York City to protest the acquittals.

    REV. AL SHARPTON: We strategically know how to stop this city so it will stand still and realize that you do not have the right to shoot down unarmed innocent civilians with no probable cause…But they show now that they will not hold police accountable. Well, guess what. If you won’t, we will.

AMY GOODMAN: I’m joined now from the firehouse studio in New York by two guests. Sanford Rubinstein is the attorney representing Sean Bell’s fiancee Nicole Paultre-Bell, and Jessica Sanclemente is an organizer with the Justice Committee and the co-coordinator of People’s Justice, a coalition of anti-police brutality groups.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now!

Sanford Rubinstein, first, Nicole Paultre-Bell’s response?

SANFORD RUBINSTEIN: Well, I was sitting next to her in the courtroom when the judge came down with his verdict. And you have to understand, Nicole was there every day of this trial, heard every word of testimony. And she was so upset, because from her listening to that testimony, she could not understand how this judge could find these police officers not guilty. Fifty-two witnesses, fifty shots, no gun. These men were doing nothing wrong. Yet they were found not guilty.

AMY GOODMAN: And what is she calling for now?

SANFORD RUBINSTEIN: She has publicly said at Reverend Sharpton’s house of justice that she will be at every rally, every demonstration, because the fight for justice has just begun.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you explain how the trial worked, how it was that it was a judge, not a jury, that made this decision?

SANFORD RUBINSTEIN: In New York State, any defendant, on the Constitution — based on the Constitution of New York, has the right unilaterally, without permission from the prosecutors, to waive a jury and have a judge decide guilt or innocence, very different than the federal system, in which a prosecutor has to agree to waive a jury before a jury is waived. We have a law, a constitution in New York, which allows this to happen only on a state level, not on a federal level.

AMY GOODMAN: What are your thoughts on it being a judge that handed down this verdict? And what was the attitude of the family when the police chose this option?

SANFORD RUBINSTEIN: Well, from the testimony of the witnesses, it was clear to many of us who were in that courtroom that there was enough evidence presented to convict these police officers of the charges in this indictment, which was handed down by a Queens jury. He, as the finder of the fact, chose not to. But the evidence, we believe, was there.

AMY GOODMAN: Jessica Sanclemente, what is the People’s Justice calling for?

JESSICA SANCLEMENTE: People’s Justice has been asking for many things for a very long time. People’s Justice has history back from 2000. We are a bunch of organizations that have gotten together to work against police brutality for many years now with Richie Perez, a former founder of the Justice Committee.

But right now there are two major things that we want to focus on. One is an independent prosecutor to look at cases of police misconduct. And the other one is to review what it is that the CCRB can do and how can it be done, and how can it be restructured so it does have subpoena power, so it does have teeth with the NYPD. And we’re not looking for other police officers to police themselves, or the DAs, for that matter, because it hasn’t been the case. The DAs in the city have constantly always allowed for killer cops to get off and go back to work.

AMY GOODMAN: I should explain, the CCRB in New York is the Civilian Complaint Review Board. There are similar bodies all over the country. How does this compare, do you think, Jessica Sanclemente, to the case of Amadou Diallo, who died in a hail of forty-one police bullets in February 1999, or the case of Timothy Stansbury, and if you could explain that case?

JESSICA SANCLEMENTE: Timothy Stansbury was crossing over from one building to another when he was getting CDs for a party he was deejaying at, and he was shot by a housing police officer when the housing police officer was going and doing lateral walks up the projects. This just shows that there is a state of occupation along New York City, mostly in communities of color and that of poor communities in New York City.

The Amadou Diallo and Sean Bell just shows that police officers are not willing to serve and protect, but they’re here to shoot and kill and thereafter ask questions after the incident. We’re not holding them accountable the way that we should be.

On Friday, when we had our protest about the verdict, it was to show that there was a community response, but we needed more people out there. And the type of anger that exists in the community is just coming out of the oppression that constantly holds us down. There is always this fear of coming out, of speaking out, because of the type of repression that exists within the NYPD. How many times do we go out into the street and are fearful of taking the streets when we have that ability to do so? We should be able to protest that.

And so, those cases are very similar, but it just shows that police officers are constantly always willing to draw their guns, shoot, and shoot fifty times, thirty-one times, twenty-two times, however it is that they feel that they can, because they feel that they hold that power and that badge to do so.

AMY GOODMAN: Sanford Rubinstein, can Nicole Paultre-Bell appeal this decision?

SANFORD RUBINSTEIN: It’s a state decision; it cannot be appealed. However, the appeal now is to the federal government, to the Department of Justice. And they have already agreed to conduct an independent review of the facts and circumstances surrounding the killing of Sean Bell and the wounding of Joe Guzman and Trent Benefield to determine if there are prosecutable violations of federal criminal civil rights statutes.

And what we want is for the federal government to come in here, as they did in the case of Baez, who was killed by a police officer named Livoti here in New York, where a state court acquitted the police officer — federal charges: guilty. Abner Louima, state prosecutors gave the case to the feds, and there were some convictions in that case. We want a federal grand jury to be convened. We want a federal prosecution of civil rights — criminal civil rights statutes violations, and that’s the next step.

AMY GOODMAN: And what do you think of the call for a state-level special prosecutor to deal with all police brutality cases?

SANFORD RUBINSTEIN: There’s no question that to have district attorneys who need the police and the detectives to make their cases have it in their inherent conflict with regard to prosecuting cases of police misconduct and excessive use of force by police. As well intentioned as district attorneys may be, it should not be within their responsibility. There should be an independent body. But I would suggest not only on a state level, but on a federal level, because when we see, as we did in the Abner Louima case, the FBI come in, we see a federal prosecution. It is where these cases should be prosecuted, at that level, and we should have on a federal level a permanent prosecutor for cases of excessive force by police.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you explain further what the judge said about the police testimony and why Sean Bell is dead, his two friends wounded?

SANFORD RUBINSTEIN: Well, basically what the judge said was that the prosecution did not prove beyond a reasonable doubt the charges in the indictment against the three police officers. Let’s have that federal trial. Let’s have a jury, because remember, under the federal system, as I said earlier, you cannot waive a jury. Let’s have a jury decide the guilt or innocence of any criminal civil rights violations that occurred here.

AMY GOODMAN: And the scenario that was described in those early morning hours of what would have been Sean Bell’s wedding day of Sean and his two friends coming out of his bachelor party, coming out of the club, going to the car — and then explain what they described seeing, the undercover cop.

SANFORD RUBINSTEIN: Well, they both testified, particularly Joe Guzman, who was sitting in the front seat, that they saw a man in civilian clothes with a gun. We, today, are meeting with Congressman Conyers, who chairs the House Judiciary Committee. And Congressman Conyers is going to go to the site of where this happened, the Kahlua Club, and walk the two-and-a-half blocks to the location where this occurred to demonstrate clearly that this police officer, who took his gun out on the sidewalk and approached the car with his gun out in plainclothes, had plenty of options when he was walking those two-and-a-half blocks, following these victims to their car, after they had peacefully left a conversation with some people on the street, which may have been confrontational or not — doesn’t matter, that was over — and two-and-a-half blocks later, this police officer, this police detective in plain clothes, takes his gun out when he’s on the sidewalk and approaches the car with his gun drawn.

JESSICA SANCLEMENTE: Can I also just add onto that? Because I think it’s very important —-


JESSICA SANCLEMENTE: —- to highlight that the response that the judge had about how he came down with his decision was not only very eyebrow-raising, definitely, and should be, because it shows that there is a sense of some sort of race issues, there’s also some class issues, about where the location was, that maybe that was something to be thinking about, and also bringing up the witnesses’ rap sheets. I mean, this shows that this city is not willing to defend people of color nor people who are shot down by fifty bullets by police officers, regardless of their color or not. We know about the blue wall of silence that exists within the NYPD. And to think that this continues to happen and judges in this city are not willing to prosecute shows that there is not only a level of some — there’s a serious division within the city. We’re getting priced out continuously — poor people are being pushed out through many means, and one of them is being killed by the NYPD — and feeling as if we’re constantly being under some sort of oppressive iron fist, and this isn’t right.

SANFORD RUBINSTEIN: Let me add something to that also. Reverend Sharpton pointed out that in the judge’s decision, the judge talked about factors that influenced his decision. One was the criminal record. And Joe Guzman, who had a criminal record, said on the witness stand, “My criminal record wasn’t on my forehead the night that happened. The police officers didn’t even know.” But that shouldn’t matter. When you charge a jury in a criminal case, a criminal record of what happened in the past shouldn’t matter in this case and should not really be considered.

In addition, there was a comment about the demeanor of the witness. Demeanor of witnesses? That is something that is, in this case, the demeanor of Joe Guzman. Does that mean that if someone has an attitude, the police — and I’m not saying that he even had an attitude, but if someone’s attitude results in being shot sixteen times — he was shot sixteen times! Four bullets remain in his body. He was shot six times in his back as he was trying to crawl out of this car!

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you both. We will certainly continue to follow this story. The Chair of the House Judiciary Committee, John Conyers, is going to take this walk — is it this morning, Sanford Rubinstein?

SANFORD RUBINSTEIN: This afternoon at 1:30. This afternoon at 1:30.

AMY GOODMAN: At 1:30. Sanford Rubinstein, thanks for joining us, lawyer for Nicole Paultre-Bell. She has legally changed her name to include Sean Bell’s name. She was to have been married to him later in the day that he was killed by New York police. And Jessica Sanclemente, thanks for being with us, co-coordinator of People’s Justice in New York City.

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