TELL ME MORE: We'll talk about next week's presidential primaries. The smart money calls them make or break. We'll talk about new research that says that Americans are increasingly flexible about their religious affiliations, and the Barber Shop guys stop in. But first, an update on a case that shocked the country. In November 2006, Sean Bell left his bachelor's party at a New York City nightclub. Minutes later, he was killed in his car in a hail of 50 unanswered police bullets.
Two police officers have been charged with manslaughter and one with reckless endangerment in connection with Bell's death. They went on trial this week. Joining us to bring us up to date is Brian Lehrer, host of THE BRIAN LEHRER SHOW in New York at member station WNYC. Welcome, Brian. Thanks so much for stopping in.
BRIAN LEHRER: Hi, Michel. My pleasure.
: When this case first broke, it was headlines every day. Is there still a lot of interest?
LEHRER: Definitely a lot of interest, but I'd say there's been little public reaction so far. You know, it's very - the very beginning of the trial. There's a lot of other stuff going on like the election and I think people who would like to see a conviction here, are glad the grand jury indicted, glad that the trial remained in Queens and not moved out to some suburb. Supporters of the police are glad that they have a trial by judge rather than by jury and are happy to have a chance to lay out the facts that they think will show this to be a tragedy, not a crime. So everyone's taking a wait-and-see approach so far it seems to me.
: I was interested in that the officers opted to be tried by a judge and not a jury. How is that being interpreted?
LEHRER: Well, of course, defendants may select that option. And in this case, as quite frequently when police officers are defendants, they opt for the professional jurists who deal with police all the time as colleagues rather than the vagaries of public opinion that a jury represents, or of civilians whose experience with police officers in their neighborhoods might not inspire them to give the benefit of the doubt. So, of course, that's legal. But, as the question implies, it raises questions about the justice system when we think of justice as coming from a jury of your peers.
: The other thing I was curious about is it often police brutality cases are seen as a racial conflict, you know, that they sort of play out as this you know, staged play where everybody kind of knows what role you're supposed to play. But two of the three officers in this case, as I understand it, are of color. Is it still being seen as a racial case?
LEHRER: Three officers - one white, one black, one Latino. Reverend Al Sharpton has said, he does not see this case as being about race. He sees it as being about police brutality. Now scratch one layer below the surface and you'll get to the fact and the argument that it seems whenever cases like this come up, the victim is black, almost whenever. And so on that level, it's about race. But I don't think we're going to see specific racial language or race-related arguments in the trial.
: The other thing that sometimes happens in a case like this is that the victim's conduct and his history and biography kind of come in to play. Has that happened here, and how is that coming across?
LEHRER: This has definitely begun to happen already. I think we saw the prosecution yesterday try to preempt some of that. The prosecution called two friends of Sean Bell, who acknowledged that Bell was in an argument with another man a few minutes before the shooting occurred. And that other man was acting like he had a gun. But eventually, according to the testimony, he drove off in his car without incident. So the question remains, if the undercover cops were monitoring the scene, why did they not realize that the guy with the gun allegedly, was gone? And why did they fire on Bell?
But nonetheless, there's going to be this attempt to focus on the fact that Sean Bell was quite legally drunk at the time. The fact that there are criminal records involved with various people in his party. And again, it's going to be a fine line for either side to walk to navigate the relevance of that to the case.
: How long is this whole trial supposed to last?
LEHRER: You know, I don't exactly know. I think from the way it's begun, my judgment is that it will go on for some weeks if not months, because we've been through four days of it so far, and they are just beginning to scratch the surface of the prosecution's case.
: And how are city officials playing this? I know that it was remarked upon when New York City Mayor Bloomberg actually raised questions about police conduct, this was considered to be quite remarkable because his predecessor Rudy Giuliani was know as sort of a staunch defender of police you know, kind of at every turn. So how is it playing out among the, you know, interested observers and city officials like Mayor Bloomberg?
LEHRER: It seems to me that whenever an elected official takes an early position on a case like this, it comes back to bite him. In the Giuliani instance, after Amadu Dialo shooting, he reflexively defended the police, and that certainly came back to haunt him. Here there were immediate questions about the conduct of the police officers, in this case raised by city officials. But now, they are being cautious because there's a trial taking place, and there is a strong police officer's union, and, of course, they have their lawyers arguing that when you really look at the facts, as awful as it is that this took place, they didn't do anything criminal.
: Brian Lehrer is the host of THE BRIAN LEHRER SHOW in New York. He joined us from WNYC in New York. Brian, thanks so much. I hope you'll stop back by.
LEHRER: I'd love to. You're welcome, Michel.