Sean Bell



FREDERICKA WHITFIELD: In this case, with these indictments, what needs to take place here to reassure New Yorkers that justice will prevail?

KENDALL COFFEY: Well, I think we’ll find out Monday exactly what the charges are and what I think we’ll see is some very thoughtful well-reasoned charges fitting what appear to be the elements of the crime. You can’t overstate your case. When you do that, you undercut your chances for winning any conviction at all.

FREDERICKA WHITFIELD: What do you mean you can’t overstate the case?

KENDALL COFFEY: Well I don’t think you’re going to see murder charges. I don’t think, for example, when you come up with the most extreme charge you sometimes run the risk of not getting a conviction on any charge at all. What I think you’re going to see focused on is recklessness. Police officers have a responsibility to perform their awesome duties with a certain degree of responsibility. Absolutely overreacting in a way that was fatal, that was lethal, could not be justified.

FREDERICKA WHITFIELD: So when you say no murder charges you are also including or excluding something like involuntary manslaughter or manslaughter.

KENDALL COFFEY: I think what we will see will be manslaughter type of charges, negligent homicide type of charges, Fredericka, as opposed to a case some years ago in New York where 41 bullets were fired into an unarmed man. They charged murder, but the jury came back with no conviction at all.

FREDERICKA WHITFIELD: That was the Diallo case right?

KENDALL COFFEY: Exactly, the Diallo case. This time I think they are going to be more careful. They want to get convictions. They’ve done in effect a careful assessment. There were five officers involved initially. They’re just indicting three of them and they are going to focus the heavier of the charges on the two officers that seem to have the most culpability here.

FREDERICKA WHITFIELD: While there may have been some knee-jerk reaction to think that race may have been involved in the shooting – the presumably white cop targeting these black victims – that argument cannot be made?

KENDALL COFFEY: I don’t think that’s going to be the argument. I think what they’re going to focus on is how many bullets did each officer fire? The more bullets the more trouble because that really measures the extent of the reckless conduct. And with respect to one Officer Sonora, who double loaded, who fired away-he’s going to be in a significant amount of trouble. Another officer, who actually loaded a second magazine with bullets, he’s going to be in double trouble. I think that’s how it’s going to play out in front of the jury.

FREDERICKA WHITFIELD: What about this witness who came out early in the week saying he thought he saw the firing of weapons from the vehicle where Sean Bell and his friends were in and perhaps that precipitated the exchange of gunfire between that vehicle and cops?

KENDALL COFFEY: Well, we may see that witness at trial. I don’t think the grand jury was buying into that witness. He came up at the last minute. This case has been in the press, with a huge amount of controversy, for months. Why did someone come in right at the very final moment of an investigation like this? But if the witness shows up at trial and if he creates a reasonable doubt, you could get some acquittals.

FREDERICKA WHITFIELD: Do you think this is a case in which so much is riding, perhaps more than any other case involving NYPD in recent years, because of what has preceded this case, like the Diallo case for example?

KENDALL COFFEY: Well, I think this is a very important case and it’s a defining case in terms of whether or not law enforcement can police itself. That’s how the community is going to see it. When cops get off, is it because they’re part of their system? Can the prosecutors bring police officers to justice? And it’s a tough kind of case because even when 51 bullets are fired, police officers go in front of a jury with a certain amount of bullet-proofing that takes only the strongest cases to win.

FREDERICKA WHITFIELD: And that underscores that whole argument of-do NYPD in particular have that license to kill?

KENDALL COFFEY: They don’t, but they get a lot of license to make mistakes if they’re not, in fact, intentional mistakes, and if they’re not truly reckless. That’s what the jury will decide.