Friday, January 25, 2008

Sean Bell Trial Set: NYPD Has No Trust in Queens Residents

Detective Michael Oliver
(NY Daily News)
The trial of three police detectives accused of murdering Sean Bell is slated to begin on February 25 according to State Supreme Court Justice Arthur Cooperman. The different thing about this trial, however, is that the typical twelve people will not be deciding the fate of Detectives Gescard Isnora, Michael Oliver, and Marc Cooper. Instead the officers, after losing a bid to get a change of venue, have opted for a bench trial, meaning that a single judge (in this case Justice Cooperman) will preside over the case and will render a verdict for the three.

This is highly advantageous to the detectives, as Justice Cooperman seems to like police officers. According to Judicial Reports Justice Cooperman is "reversed more often than any other judge in the city for overly harsh treatment of criminal defendants." Additionally, according to the same source, Justice Cooperman has been praised by the Daily News for "slamming cop-haters." The Daily News article that is alluded to is pretty mundane, however, as it seems that he has only given one guy an overly harsh sentence (a full year for biting a cop without injuring him). Additionally, Cooperman has sentenced cops to jail before, but the sentence seems a little light for the crime (a 1986 sentence of 2 to 6 years for cops who tortured a drug suspect with a taser.)

Detective Gescard Isnora
(NY Daily News)
In the taser case, two police officers - Seargent Richard Pike and Officer Jeffrey Gilbert - were charged and convicted in an incident involving their treatment of a drug suspect, Mark Davidson. In 1985 the 18 year old Davidson was held down in the 106th Precinct House and tased numerous times in an effort to get him to confess. The torture stopped when the officers threatened to tase Davidson's testicles and he falsely confessed. The case was indicative of a larger torture ring at the 106th Precinct House.

What is important here is that, while Justice Cooperman seems to hand down maximum sentences for those who hurt police officers, he does not do the same for police officers who hurt civilians. In a New York Times article published July 18, 1986 reporting on the conviction of Pike and Gilbert it states that Cooperman could have sentenced the two officers to the maximum sentence of 2 and 1/3 years to 7 years in prison for the torture but did not. While the maximum sentence is not much more than they got, it would have sent a symbolic message that police torture will not be tolerated, just as Cooperman had on other cases involving violence against police. This is slightly troubling, as it shows (albeit a relatively small) favoring of police officers.

Detective Marc Cooper
(NY Daily News)
About the trust issue: in our justice system we are supposed to trust 12 men and women to fairly assess the facts of a trial and make the correct decision. The cops tried to get a change of venue - a la Diallo's murderers - in order to get out of diverse New York City and go somewhere a bit more white (like Albany.)

This was denied, so in a last-ditch effort to avoid the judgement of the same people they have sworn to protect and to serve, they have opted for a bench trial. Unfortunately the Reverend Al Sharpton was right in his assertion that "we are asked to trust police who do not trust us." I say unfortunately because Sharpton tends to be a race-baiter who loves the limelight, but this time he has it right. We are asked to defer to police judgment and obey their every command at the risk of life and limb, but when the tables are turned those same police do not trust us and there is something inherently wrong with that.

The detectives said that they wanted a bench trial because they believed that the pre-trial publicity tainted the jury pool and they would not receive a fair trial. I would argue that the fact that they shot at Sean Bell and companions 50 times and then went out and partied after the indictments were handed down might sway the jury pool, but apparently in their minds it is the fact that media outlets are reporting on their behavior - not the behavior itself - that is wrong.

This trial is going to be interesting. Personally, I would like to see a justice not from New York take the case. In my opinion, the Department of Justice should bring in an outside judge to take it, but that seems like it is not going to happen. There is still hope for justice, as Cooperman might actually give these detectives jail time. Hopefully the citizens of New York will not be slapped in the face with another acquittal of murderous cops and Sean Bell's family will see justice.

Correction: A reader pointed out to me that in the second paragraph I stated that cops tortured a drug suspect with a taser in 1986. The sentence itself was handed down by Judge Cooperman in 1986. I have changed the wording of the paragraph to indicate this.

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