Sunday 27 April 2008
Nicole Paultre Bell, the woman who was to marry Sean Bell the day he was killed in a hail of 50 police bullets, vowed on Saturday to continue demanding accountability for his death, delivering her remarks in a tone that was a departure from her more familiar gentle demeanor.
Joseph Guzman, who was shot more than a dozen times while sitting next to Mr. Bell, followed her to the microphone and spoke in somber tones of the emotional whiplash of the previous 24 hours.
Ms. Paultre Bell and Mr. Guzman spoke publicly on Saturday for the first time since a judge on Friday acquitted three detectives charged in the shooting of Mr. Bell in November 2006 outside a strip club in Jamaica, Queens, where he had celebrated his bachelor party.
They were among more than 100 people - including Mr. Bell's parents, William and Valerie Bell - who packed into the Harlem headquarters of the National Action Network, the organization founded by the Rev. Al Sharpton, to denounce the verdict and the judge who handed it down.
"April 25, 2008, they killed Sean all over again," Ms. Paultre Bell told the audience. "I'm still praying for justice, because this is far from over. Every march, every protest, every rally, I'm going to be right up front."
Mr. Guzman wore a long chain with a diamond-studded "S" hanging from it, a tribute to Mr. Bell. "Yesterday, I felt defeated," he said.
Trent Benefield, who was in the back seat of Mr. Bell's car and was also shot by the police, was not at the meeting because he remained distraught about the verdict, said Michael Hardy, Mr. Benefield's lawyer.
On Friday, Mr. Sharpton pledged to lead boycotts, protests and acts of civil disobedience. But except for a small march in Harlem on Saturday morning - which Mr. Sharpton did not participate in - there was no visible reaction in the city to the verdict. Extra security was seen outside the Police Department headquarters. Police vehicles were parked outside the Queens home of the judge who presided over the Bell trial, Justice Arthur J. Cooperman, and a police helicopter flew overhead.
Mr. Sharpton said he planned to meet on Monday with Representative John Conyers Jr. of Michigan, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, which has oversight over the Justice Department. Federal prosecutors say they are investigating the case.
Mr. Sharpton also said he would meet on Tuesday night with community leaders in Manhattan to plan demonstrations that he said would begin within a week. As he did on Friday, Mr. Sharpton attacked several parts of Justice Cooperman's statement explaining his verdict. The judge said that prosecutors failed to prove their case and that the wounded friends of Mr. Bell gave testimony that he did not believe.
In Harlem, the relatively small protest started around 11:30 a.m., when a group of more than 100 people marched south on Lenox Avenue from 145th Street. They carried signs with the numerals 1 through 50 written on them.
Inside Mr. Sharpton's headquarters, those closest to Mr. Bell spoke of their own readiness to march. "We still here, we still in it," said Mr. Guzman, who spoke so softly at one point that the audience had to ask him to speak into the microphone.
Mr. Guzman showed little of what the lawyers for the detectives - and even Justice Cooperman - suggested was a bellicose demeanor on the witness stand. There were moments when his face turned red, seemingly overcome with emotion. He said he sometimes heard Mr. Bell's voice when he was in his car.
William Bell showed the most frustration. At one point, while everyone stood and chanted, he sat stiff-jawed in his seat, his elbows on his knees and his fingers interlocking. Later, he stepped to the microphone and said, "Is this 1955 Alabama?"
Valerie Bell spoke of her faith in God and her lingering anguish.
"On May 18, 1983, I didn't go through labor pains with my son because he was born C-section," she said. "But on Nov. 25, 2006, that's when my labor pains started." That was the day Mr. Bell was killed.
Ms. Paultre Bell, who took Mr. Bell's name after his death, chose not to make any denunciations after the shooting, deferring to the legal system, said Mr. Hardy, who is representing her, Mr. Benefield and Mr. Guzman in a $50 million lawsuit against the city. That respect had evaporated, he said.
"I think Cooperman's rejection, his unequivocal rejection, was liberating to Nicole," Mr. Hardy said. "She now feels unrestrained in her love for Sean and her quest for justice."
Indeed, on Saturday, Ms. Paultre Bell said, "The justice system let me down."
At one point during his 30-minute speech, Mr. Sharpton's voice rumbled to a scratchy crescendo as he spoke of his childhood in Brownsville, Brooklyn, and how his mother fought to keep him out of trouble and make sure he got an education.
Then, with tears streaming down his face, he pointed to Valerie Bell and Ms. Paultre Bell and said: "I'm going to help these two women fight for that little boy. That little boy didn't deserve to die, and this city is going to deal with the blood of Sean Bell."
Mathew R. Warren contributed reporting.