I’m not going to say much on this subject because it is playing out in the media and in blogs all over the place. I am sure you have already made up your mind about it, one way or another.
From the gut, the verdict is appalling and shockingly unfair. Just based on common sense alone, it is baffling to me how one could justify shooting an unarmed man 50 times. Even if one was in fear of their own life, it is beyond excessive to shoot that much and reload you weapon to continue shooting. Logically, it just does not add up.
However, after feeling what I feel at the core, I also must think. Recently, my thinking has changed and is colored by the legal training I have received thus far. When I first heard the verdict I had two thoughts: (1) Damn, that’s fucked up yo. (2) Damn, those defense attorneys had a banging ass case. I wonder what their theory was.
There are a couple things that probably contributed to the acquittals.
The defendants opted for a bench trial. In this country, when you’re facing a criminal trial you have the right to be tried by a jury. You can, however, waive that right and elect for a judge to hear the case and make the decision him or herself. Usually, a person wants to go with a jury trial. Jury selection is a strategic practice. If it is done correctly, a criminal defendant could end up with a jury who is sympathetic to some aspect of his life or who is more likely to decide with their feelings as opposed to the letter of the law. This last point is exactly why the officers in this case went with a bench trial. The FEELINGS around this case are so strong. The common sense reaction I mentioned above is probably shared by most, if not all, people in New York. The defense was not able to get a change of venue (moving the case outside of NYC to be tried. This is usually done when the party feels they cannot get a fair trial in the normal venue because of bias/media influence/etc). Any attorney worth a damn would see that if she had to proceed in NYC, well then a NYC jury would NOT get to hear this case.
The standard of proof in criminal cases is “beyond a reasonable doubt.” Unfortunately, the prosecution failed to prove their case to that standard. I don’t know if people really understand BARD. Basically, it’s difficult for the prosecution to win a lot of cases because the standard is so high. It is that high to curb the power of the state to convict people. The result is that the prosecution must work very hard if they want to take your freedom away from you. If, after the state has put on their case, you believe that a reasonable person could harbor any doubt about the guilt of the defendant(s), then it’s a wrap. At base, one must respect the BARD standard. It’s an amazing protection. True, there are always rapists, murderers and thieves who walk the streets today because of reasonable doubt. Still, there are many innocent people with “evidence” against them who, but for reasonable doubt, would be locked up or worse.
I wish I was in that courtroom to observe how the case was actually put on. According to the New York Times, it seems that the prosecution’s theory of the case was “that the shooting was the act of a frightened group of disorganized police officers who began their shift that night hoping to arrest a prostitute or two and, in suspecting Mr. Bell and his friends of possessing a gun, quickly got in over their heads.” The defense, on the other hand, focused on “portraying the shooting as the tragic end to a nonetheless justified confrontation, with Detective Isnora having what it called solid reasons to believe he was the only thing standing between Mr. Bell’s car and a drive-by shooting around the corner.”
It is said that the prosecution’s witnesses weren’t’ very reliable. This is an important factor in any case. Can your witnesses be relied upon to be truthful and persuasive? If not, a lawyer cannot do much more. The case must be developed through the witnesses.
Judges must make decisions based on the law and the case presented during THE TRIAL. Once the case is presented, the judge must make a decision based on what he heard. NOT on what he feels or what the media is saying or what people might think afterwards. IF there was still a reasonable doubt as to the charges brought by the state, then the judge was BOUND and FORCED to return a verdict of not guilty. That’s just the way it is.
Many people are saying that it’s the system’s fault and that the justice system is unfair. While I understand that and have seen the product of a so-called unfair justice system, I cannot totally discount the system altogether. Those same people do not always continue to lament the state of the American criminal justice system when that very system works in their favor. And that’s just it. Sometimes it “works” and sometimes it doesn’t. Depends on which side you’re on, to tell the truth. The adversarial legal system we use has checks and balances built into it which, more times than not, results in a justified outcome. The system itself is not the problem. The problem is the people within the system.
Being upset at the the lawyers, the judge, they system is not really the move. In my opinion, institutionalized and subconscious racism is to blame. There is definitely a problem with people of color (and, to some extent, poor people in general) being disproportionately attacked by law enforcement. Historically this has been the case. Clearly, we can see it continues today. I can make room for the idea that these officers feared for their safety and the safety of others. What I cannot make room for is the fact that part of the reason they felt that way was because the men they were facing were Black. Lots of people will say they are not racist and truly believe it. However, if you hold up a mirror and show them how their behaviors inadvertently reflect racist beliefs, then they’ll see. There is no doubt that many law enforcement officers have negative feelings towards people of color and react accordingly. Unfortunately, “react accordingly” often means with force and violence. That is why I believe that a federal civil rights violation has occurred and the Bell family ought to bring a case at that level. This is bigger than the loss of Sean Bell (however tragic). This is about a historical and systematic attack on people of color, Black people in particular, by the law enforcement officers who wield an unbelievable amount of power.
I guess I did say a bit much.
Lastly, I’d like to say that it is imperative that people do not let their frustrations and sadness bubble over into physical acts of violence. We have seen, time and again, that rioting and violent retaliation does not help our community. In fact, it often results in us destroying our OWN property and invites JUSTIFIED retaliation by the very law enforcement we were trying to send a message to. No one will win there. Trust me.