Understanding the Sean Bell Decision

[I happen to be a legal philosopher who has taught many a class plumbing the significance of the concepts applied by the judge in his Sean Bell decision, finding the three officers not guilty of a crime. I also feel the pain of the deaths which resonate with the little gang of Harlem kids with which I worked many years ago — all but three of about a dozen of whom who died violent deaths later.

As I understand the judge’s decision, he determined (reasonably it seems to me) that there was no evidence either of criminal intent or deliberation by the 3 officers, two of whom are African American unlikely to be motivated by racism. The only way to have found guilt would have been either to discover a plan to kill or recklessness on the part of one or more of those doing the shooting.

To illustrate the possibilities here, imagine four involving a man driving down a street with a 30 mile speed limit who kills a small child who runs out into the road. Were this individual to have planned this killing, he would be a murderer. Had he been driving at a high (reckless) speed he could be criminally held responsible for manslaughter, Had he been distracted by chatting with his girlfriend on a cell phone, he might be declared “careless” as this judge has done here and sued for this negligence in a civil suit. Had the child rushed out leaving him no chance to halt his car before the death, he would be entirely innocent in this tragic incident.

There was actually a case along these lines in which an elderly taxi driver panicked and took the child a way and then stuffed her under a car. Had she not died instantly, he would have been guilty of murder. As she had been killed instantly, he was convicted of illegally transporting a corpse!

Our judge has chosen here the third option which still opens the door to civil suits against both the police and the city (their employer) for possibly large compensation to care for the mother and children left orphaned.

The uproar over the case is probably overdone so far as an injustice having been done. The standards of proof for a crime are understandably more strict than for civil damages, i.e. “guilt beyond a reasonable doubt” rather than “probable cause” responsibility as outlined above for careless training and/or actions.

Sad as this case is, the judge has by all appearances made a just finding within the long developed framework of Anglo American law. A jury might have allowed its emotions to do injustice here. The police were well advised to choose a judge to make the decision. They may now face other non criminal charges that will cost them possibly their jobs and more. Ed Kent]


Three NY Detectives Acquitted in Bell Shooting
Michael Wilson reports for The New York Times: “Three detectives were found not guilty Friday morning on all charges in the shooting death of Sean Bell, who died in a hail of 50 police bullets outside a club in Jamaica, Queens.”

“A war is just if there is no alternative, and the resort to arms is legitimate if they represent your last hope.” (Livy cited by Machiavelli)

Ed Kent 212-665-8535 (voice mail only) [blind copies]

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