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Three New York City police officers pleaded not guilty today to criminal charges in the shooting of an unarmed man on his wedding day. The 50-bullet barrage killed Sean Bell and injured his two friends as they left a strip club in Queens last November. As NPR's Robert Smith reports, today's court proceedings were watched closely in Harlem by friends and family of the victims.
ROBERT SMITH: They gathered at Reverend Al Sharpton's headquarters, which looks a lot like a church, but instead of pictures of Jesus, the walls are hung with giant photos of Sharpton, and in the pews were a few dozen community members come to watch TV coverage of the police officers' indictment.
MOTHER FRANKLIN: God's going to whip him real good yet.
SMITH: Mother Franklin, as she's known, looked up as Al Sharpton entered the room with one of the victims of the shooting, Joseph Guzman, and Sean Bell's fiancee, Nicole Paultre Bell. They sat quietly in front of the TV, watching Queens DA Richard Brown read the charges.
Mr. RICHARD BROWN (Queens District Attorney): Two of the officers charged, Michael Oliver and Gescard Isnora, have been charged with manslaughter in the first degree and in the second degree. A third officer, Marc Cooper, has been charged only with two counts of reckless endangerment in the second degree.
SMITH: Of the five officers who opened fire on Bell, these three shot the most bullets. They suspected the men had weapons, and Bell's car hit an officer before the first shot. State law says that a police officer can fire if he has a reasonable belief that his life is in danger.
As the counts were read, Bell's fiancee, watching in Harlem, started to cry. Photographers leaned forward to capture her wiping away the tears.
(Soundbite of cameras)
SMITH: And afterwards, she wouldn't speak. Al Sharpton did all the talking.
Reverend AL SHARPTON: Clearly in our judgment all five officers should have been shot - should have been charged.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Rev. SHARPTON: Let me be clear. All five officers shot. We do not endorse their being shot. We're calling for the shooting to stop.
SMITH: Sharpton said that Bell's family and friends won't accept a replay of the Amadou Diallo case. He was the African immigrant who was shot 41 times in the Bronx in 1999. Four officers got indicted in that case, but the trial got transferred to Albany and the four cops were acquitted a year after the shooting. Sharpton said that this time the trial must stay in Queens.
Rev. SHARPTON: We will not participate, attend or cooperate with a trial outside of Queens County.
SMITH: After the cameras were turned off, Sharpton escorted Nicole Paultre Bell outside. Joseph Guzman, in a wheelchair from his bullet injuries, followed. Guzman was wearing a blue hooded sweatshirt with the name Sean Bell on the front in rhinestones. He said the manslaughter charges don't satisfy him.
Mr. JOSEPH GUZMAN (Shooting Victim): They know they committed murder. Everybody know they committed murder. They just can't say it.
SMITH: Are you ready to go a year with this or longer?
Mr. GUZMAN: I'm ready to go 10 years with this.
SMITH: It's not much of an exaggeration. The Amadou Diallo civil case wasn't finally settled until five years later, when New York City paid Diallo's family $3 million. Robert Smith, NPR News, New York.
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