NEW YORK — The family of an unarmed man killed in a hail of police gunfire on his wedding day pledged Saturday to continue its fight to have someone held accountable for his death, a day after a judge acquitted three officers in the slaying.
"I'm still praying for justice, because it's not over. It's far from over. It's just starting," Sean Bell's fiancee, Nicole Paultre Bell, told supporters at a rally in Manhattan's Harlem neighborhood. "Every protest, every march, every rally, I'm going to be right up front."
If history is a guide, the family may indeed still have a chance at extracting some measure of retribution, but it would very likely come at the expense of the city and not the officers who pulled the trigger. Bell, 23, was killed and two friends wounded in a 50-shot barrage outside a Queens strip club hours before his wedding.
Legal experts said Bell's family faces an uphill fight in their attempt to have the officers charged with federal civil rights violations and might have to settle for battling them in civil court, where the city, not the officers, would be responsible for paying off any multimillion-dollar verdict.
Peter J. Neufeld, an attorney who represented police torture victim Abner Louima, said he believed the chances that the U.S. Attorney's Office would bring federal charges in the case were "close to zero," judging by Justice Department decisions in past police shootings.
While federal prosecutors have been willing to prosecute police officers for civil rights violations before, most famously in the case of Los Angeles brutality victim Rodney King, they have hesitated to take on cases in which officers have had to make a quick decision whether to open fire on a person they perceived to be dangerous.
"The split-second nature of the decision to shoot," Neufeld said, makes it difficult for prosecutors to argue that the officers knowingly acted to deprive someone of a constitutional right.
Bell's family and the two survivors of the shooting may have better luck, though, with their lawsuit against the city. His companions that night were Joseph Guzman and Trent Benefield.
New York has a long history of multimillion-dollar payouts as a result of lawsuits brought by the families of people slain or beaten by police, including many settlements in cases where the officers were acquitted of criminal responsibility.
Even if the case goes to trial in civil court, Bell's family is in a good position for a victory, said attorney Bob Conason, who helped 1999 shooting victim Amadou Diallo's mother reach a settlement with the city.
"This certainly doesn't kill the civil case," Conason said of Friday's acquittal.
"Yes, they will have to try the case over again," he said, but the standard for proving that the officers used excessive force is much lower in a civil court. "We had the exact same thing in Diallo, and we were not that concerned about winning the civil case," even after the initial verdicts of not guilty, Conason said.