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Protests, conflicting accounts of shooting mark first day of Bell trial

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Prosecutors charged that hasty decisions and a breach of protocol on the part of police led to the barrage of bullets that killed an unarmed, innocent Bell, while the defense described a scenario where police were defending themselves against a reckless, intoxicated driver with a potentially armed and dangerous passenger who ignored an order to freeze.During opening arguments, Assistant District Attorney Charles Testagrossa argued to Judge Arthur Cooperman that undercover Detective Gescard Isnora did not identify himself as an officer when he approached Bell's entourage, and he and his partners, Michael Oliver, Marc Cooper, Mike Carey and Paul Headley, did not stop to assess the situation before they unloaded 50 shots.

In March, Oliver and Isnora were indicted on charges of first-degree manslaughter for firing the majority of the bullets that killed Bell and wounded his friends Trent Benefield, 23, and Joseph Guzman, 31, outside a Jamaica strip club last November. Cooper was charged with reckless endangerment.

"The people will prove these counts without a reasonable doubt," Testagrossa said.

The detectives' attorneys disagreed, stating that their clients were acting in self-defense after an intoxicated Bell rammed his sedan into their unmarked van when they approached to question him on a weapons possession suspicion.

"Something extraordinary had to happen to make five experienced undercover detectives believe they were fired on," said James Cullerton, Oliver's attorney.

Bell's fiancée, Nicole Paultre-Bell, 23, who was set to walk down the aisle with him that morning, took the stand as the first witness, telling Cooperman that her high-school sweetheart was a loving man who took care of her and their daughters. She broke down as she described the morning she went to identify his body at Jamaica Hospital.

"He was in the morgue," she said when asked where in the hospital she first saw him.

But Detectives Endowment Association President Michael Palladino dismissed her testimony at a news conference outside the court.

"She's trying to strike a sympathetic nerve, but I don't think it struck any sympathy," he said.

See the Feb. 28 editions of the TimesLedger Newspapers for full coverage.

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