Feds will not charge officers in Sean Bell case

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After nearly two years of waiting, Sean Bell’s family and friends learned Tuesday that the federal government would not charge the five officers who killed the bridegroom in a hail of 50 bullets with civil rights violations.

The U.S. attorney in Washington said there was insufficient evidence for the case to be brought against the New York Police Department.

Representatives from the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division met with Bell’s family, including his fiancée, Nicole Paultre-Bell, and Joseph Guzman and Trent Benefield, Bell’s two friends who were shot and seriously wounded in the Nov. 25, 2006, incident in Manhattan to break the news.

“Under the applicable federal criminal civil rights laws, prosecutors must establish, beyond a reasonable doubt, that a law enforcement officer willfully deprived an individual of a constitutional right, meaning with the deliberate and specific intent to do something the law forbids. This is the highest standard of intent imposed by law and is different and higher than the intent standard under the relevant state statutes,” the Justice Department said.

Although Bell’s family could not be reached for comment on the decision, the Rev. Al Sharpton, who has been advocating for a federal civil rights trial ever since the officers were cleared of criminal charges in 2008, sounded off to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder.

“I expressed to him my extreme disappointment in the decision and our legal advisers saw the evidence and federal jurisdiction differently,” Sharpton said in a statement.

Michael Paladino, the president of the Detectives Endowment Association, chastized Sharpton’s remarks.

“Once again, in an effort to push his personal agenda, he did a disservice to the Bell family and the community,” he said in a statement.

The dismissal of the case closes another chapter in the events that have surrounded the shooting, which took place outside the now-defunct Kalua Cabaret strip club in Jamaica.

It was there that Bell, a Richmond Hill native and father of two, was celebrating his bachelor party with friends and where undercover police officers were conducting an investigation into alleged drug and prostitution rings.

The bridegroom got into an argument with another club member in the early morning hours and one of the officers thought Bell or one of his friends had a gun. When Bell, Guzman and Benefield got into the bridegroom’s car, an unmarked police van approached and Bell rammed it.

Five undercover officers unloaded their guns at the car, firing 50 times and killing Bell instantly, just hours before he was to be married, and wounding the other two. No weapon was ever found.

The shooting sparked numerous protests in southeast Queens and across the city against the police for using excessive force. The NYPD changed its policies and now tests officers for alcohol following a discharge of their weapons in the line of duty.

Two of the five officers, Detectives Gescard Isnora and Michael Oliver, were charged with manslaughter while Detective Marc Cooper was charged with reckless endangerment for the shooting. All were acquitted in a bench trial April 25, 2008.

The officers still face other court actions.

The NYPD has said four of the officers and their three superiors have been hit with departmental charges and are awaiting internal hearings. Queens District Attorney Richard Brown said his office is working with the NYPD on those departmental charges.

Bell’s fiancée, Guzman and Benefield have also filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the department.

Reach reporter Ivan Pereira by e-mail at or by phone at 718-260-4546.

Updated 6:05 pm, October 10, 2011
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