NEW YORK — The family of an unarmed man killed in a hail of police gunfire on his wedding day pledged Saturday to continue its fight to have someone held accountable for his death, a day after a judge acquitted three officers in the slaying.
"I'm still praying for justice, because it's not over. It's far from over. It's just starting," Sean Bell's fiancee, Nicole Paultre Bell, told supporters at a rally in Manhattan's Harlem neighborhood. "Every protest, every march, every rally, I'm going to be right up front."
If history is a guide, the family may indeed still have a chance at extracting some measure of retribution, but it would very likely come at the expense of the city and not the officers who pulled the trigger. Bell, 23, was killed and two friends wounded in a 50-shot barrage outside a Queens strip club hours before his wedding.
Legal experts said Bell's family faces an uphill fight in its attempt to have the officers charged with federal civil rights violations and might have to settle for battling them in civil court, where the city, not the officers, would be responsible for paying off any multimillion-dollar verdict.
Peter J. Neufeld, an attorney who represented police torture victim Abner Louima, said he believed the chances that the U.S. attorney's office would bring federal charges in the case were "close to zero," judging by Justice Department decisions in past police shootings.
While federal prosecutors have been willing to prosecute police officers for civil rights violations before, most famously in the case of Los Angeles brutality victim Rodney King, they have hesitated to take on cases in which officers have had to make a quick decision whether to open fire on a person they perceived to be dangerous.
No civil rights charges were brought in the 1999 case of Amadou Diallo, an unarmed African immigrant shot to death in the vestibule of a Bronx apartment building by officers who mistook his wallet for a gun. They also were not brought in the case of Eleanor Bumpurs, a mentally ill, 66-year-old black woman who was killed by two shotgun blasts fired by a police officer evicting her from her apartment in the Bronx in 1984
"The split-second nature of the decision to shoot," Neufeld said, makes it difficult for prosecutors to argue that the officers knowingly acted to deprive someone of a constitutional right.
Bell's family and the two survivors of the shooting may have better luck, though, with their lawsuit against the city. His companions that night were Joseph Guzman and Trent Benefield.
New York has a long history of multimillion-dollar payouts as a result of lawsuits brought by the families of people slain or beaten by police, including many settlements in cases where the officers were acquitted of criminal responsibility.
Even if the case goes to trial in civil court, Bell's family is in a good position for a victory, said Bob Conason, an attorney who helped Diallo's mother wrest a $3 million settlement from the city.
"This certainly doesn't kill the civil case," Conason said of Friday's acquittal.
"Yes, they will have to try the case over again," he said, but the standard for proving that the officers used excessive force is much lower in a civil court. "We had the exact same thing in Diallo, and we were not that concerned about winning the civil case," even after the initial verdicts of not guilty, Conason said.
An exoneration in a criminal investigation also wasn't an obstacle for the families of Patrick Dorismond, an unarmed black security guard whose family won a $2.25 million settlement from the city after his shooting by a narcotics detective in 2000, or for relatives of Timothy Stansbury, who settled for $2 million after the 19-year-old was shot by a startled officer on a Brooklyn rooftop in 2004. Grand juries had declined to indict in either case.
That doesn't mean that the road to victory will be easy for the Bell family, even in civil court.
The long trial of detectives Michael Oliver, Gescard Isnora and Marc Cooper produced some moments damaging to the family's claim that the officers had no cause to fear for their safety.
Judge Arthur Cooperman noted in his written decision on the case that some of the prosecution witnesses who had given the most damning account of the officers' conduct had changed their stories regarding the circumstances of the shooting, which he said "had the effect of eviscerating" their credibility.
While not mentioning him by name, the judge also appeared to refer to Guzman as he described a witness with a criminal history and a poor demeanor on the witness stand. Guzman had been combative as he was cross-examined about the shooting and has served jail time. The police detectives said they decided to confront Bell's party as they left the strip club because they believed Guzman was going to his car to retrieve a gun after an earlier argument.
Yet, even considering those factors, Conason said it might be in the city's best interest to settle, rather than risk polarizing citizens by defending the detectives' conduct in court.
"I would hope they figure, 'Enough of this. It's not good for the city. It's not good for the department,"' Conason said. The Rev. Al Sharpton said he would meet with members of Congress in an attempt to elicit their help getting the Justice Department involved in the case.
Regardless of what the city decides to do, Bell's family and his friends say they aren't going to give up.
"We got a long fight. We still here. We still in it," Guzman said.