NEW YORK -- Two officers charged with killing an unarmed man in a flurry of bullets on his wedding day pleaded not guilty yesterday in a case that led to widespread rallies against perceived police brutality.
The charges were announced yesterday after a grand jury voted last week to indict three of the five officers involved in the shooting of Sean Bell, 23.
Detectives Michael Oliver, who fired 31 times, and Gescard Isnora, who fired 11 shots, are accused of first- and second-degree manslaughter. If convicted, they could serve up to 25 years in prison, Queens District Attorney Richard Brown said at a news conference.
The two officers also are charged with assault and reckless endangerment in the wounding of Bell's friends Trent Benefield, 23, and Joseph Guzman, 31. Oliver also faces a reckless-endangerment charge for allegedly firing a shot through a residence.
The third officer, Detective Marc Cooper, could be sentenced to one year in prison if convicted of reckless endangerment, a misdemeanor. He is accused of endangering people by firing four shots on a street and through the window of a train station. He, too, has pleaded not guilty.
"This was a case that was, I'm sure, not easy for [the grand jury] to resolve. But they did so, in my judgment, in a conscientious fashion," Brown said. "And now we've got to try this case."
Michael Palladino, president of the New York detectives union, called the charges "excessive."
"It sends a very chilling message to all of law enforcement," he said. "If they can't get it done in three shots or less, [they're] in trouble."
Appearing with Benefield, Guzman and Bell's fiancee, Nicole Paultre Bell, before the arraignment, the Rev. Al Sharpton said all five officers involved should have been charged.
Bell, who was black, was killed about 4 a.m. Nov. 25 outside a strip club where he was attending his bachelor party. The officers have said they thought he and his friends were armed. Police later searched Bell's car and found no gun.
Sharpton said yesterday that the case was not about racism. Two of the indicted officers are black; one is white.
"Clearly the people in this city have said no matter who is the police and no matter who the victim, we want one standard of justice," Sharpton said. "This grand jury, at least to some degree, has said that."
Isnora's lawyer, Philip Karasyk, said his client's mood yesterday was somber. The lawyer charged that activists were using the case to "vilify and crucify police at every turn."
"We are going to do every single thing within our power," Karasyk said, "to ensure that these officers are vindicated."
Erika Hayasaki writes for the Los Angeles Times.