Cops Go Non-Jury in Sean Bell Killing

New York is a big city, but Queens, home to Archie Bunker, is a little less so.  At least the three NYPD officers on trial for pumping 50 bullets into Sean Bell on the night before his wedding believe so.

They tried to have venue changed because of the intense media coverage, and condemnation, of the killing.  That’s a tough sell in New York.  There are plenty of high profile cases in the Big Apple, and the headline one day is displaced by the next day’s horrific murder, crash or scandal.  The media machine always manages to find something new to get us to buy a paper.  If courts were to start changing venue every time someone found their face on the front page, it would become a full-time job.  It just doesn’t happen in New York City, and an  appellate court ruled that it won’t happen in this case.

But something happened here that changes the calculus.  Rather than play the change of venue card so that they can later argue “I told you so” when the cops get convicted, they have chosen to take a monumental gamble.  The cops are going non-jury.  They are leaving their fate in the hands of a judge. 

Common wisdom is that you don’t go non-jury unless the judge gives you “the wink.”  But there’s no suggestion that the defendant cops got “the wink” from Supreme Court Justice Arthur Cooperman, who will hold their fate in his hands.  This one’s on the up and up, which means that they’ve shifted their future from the hands of 12 jurors to one person. 

It seems that the cops believe that a judge, neutral, detached and capable of not letting the emotion and sympathy of Sean Bell’s death cloud his judgment, offers them a better chance than a jury.  Given that a judge has seen too much, heard too much and experienced too much to buy into media hype, there’s some merit to the idea.

But the flip side is that a jury offers 12 chances to find one person who can at least hang the bunch.  Do the cops believe that every person in Queens, every potential venireman whose name is called, will hate them so much that they will reject their defense?  Apparently so.  This belief is so strong that they are prepared to risk their lives on it.

There’s no way to say whether this will prove to be the right call, but it will be interesting to watch.

4 thoughts on “Cops Go Non-Jury in Sean Bell Killing

  1. Joel Rosenberg

    Very interesting. My own criminal attorney has gone for a bench trial a total of once in his career (and won it). To the extent that you’re able and willing to talk about it, what’s your own view on such matters? Do you often/rarely/never (recommend that your client) go for it?

  2. SHG

    I have never tried a bench trial by choice.  I’ve done misdemeanor trials before a judge, and I frankly like trying a case to a judge because of the ability to communicate more clearly and effectively to someone who will understand things that jurors often don’t.  Jurors are always a wild card, and one never quite knows whether they get the point or not.  Mind you, if they don’t, it’s not the jurors fault, but the lawyers’.  It’s our job to make them get it.

    But then, I’ve never represented cops who killed a man in a hail of bullets.  I suspect that the defense believes that their arguments will require a level of understanding and acceptance of police work that jurors will find unpalatable.  It’s a lot harder to teach a jury about the pressures on police to do their job then it is a judge.  Whether this will work, who knows?

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