Nearly five years after an unarmed man died in a barrage of 50 police bullets following his bachelor party in Queens, two of the shooters faced a long-delayed disciplinary trial on Monday that could cost them their jobs.
Detective Gescard Isnora and Officer Michael Carey are charged violating department guidelines by using unnecessary force in the 2006 shooting of Sean Bell, who died on what would have been his wedding day.
The 23-year-old Bell was killed and two friends seriously injured outside a topless bar where police were investigating reports of prostitution. No weapon was found in Bell's blood-splattered, bullet-riddled car, sparking accusations that the New York Police Department was too quick to use deadly force in his case and others.
The disciplinary proceeding follows a 2008 non-jury trial where Isnora and two other officers were acquitted of criminal charges. Carey was never charged criminally.
NYPD attorney Adam Sheldon told an administrative judge on Monday that the tragic outcome was the result of "the outrageous, unimaginable and unjustified actions of Detective Isnora."
When Isnora and other officers began shooting at a car carrying Bell and two friends, Carey fired three rounds without proper cause, Sheldon said.
Carey "never saw an actual threat coming from the car," the attorney said. "He couldn't have, because one didn't exist."
Isnora's attorney, Philip Karasyk, blamed Bell for not following the detective's orders to halt and instead trying to drive away.
If Bell "had just put his foot on the brake instead of the accelerator, none of us would be here today," the lawyer said.
At the 2008 criminal trial, an undercover officer working with the accused officers testified that they became alarmed after witnessing a heated argument outside the club between Bell's friends and another patron who appeared to have a gun. He claimed they overheard a bell associate, Joseph Guzman, say, "Yo, go get my gun."
In grand jury testimony, Isnora said he decided to follow Bell, Guzman and Trent Benefield to their car because he believed they were going to commit a drive-by shooting.
Guzman denied saying anything about a gun; other witnesses also testified that the dispute ended peacefully. He and Benefield testified that they never heard the officers yell warnings before opening fire and tried to drive away because they feared for their lives.
Isnora gave a different account: When he confronted the men, he resorted to deadly force only after Bell bumped him with the car and smashed into an unmarked police van, and after he spotted Guzman make a sudden move as though he were going for a gun.
A judge ended up acquitting the three officers of state charges that included manslaughter, assault and reckless endangerment.
After hearing evidence at the disciplinary trial, the administrative judge will make a recommendation to Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly about whether and how to discipline the officers, who aren't on active duty but collect a paycheck. Kelly has the final say on their future with the department.
The two other officers acquitted in the criminal trial are trying to negotiate plea deals in their disciplinary cases.
Last year, the city agreed to pay $3.25 million to the estate of Bell, $3 million to Guzman and $900,000 to Benefield to settle a civil suit.