WASHINGTON – There is insufficient evidence to pursue federal criminal civil rights charges against New York City Police Department (NYPD) officers involved in the fatal shooting of Sean Bell, the Justice Department announced today.
Officials from the department’s Civil Rights Division, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York and the FBI met today with Bell’s family, his fiancée and their representatives to inform them of this decision, as well as with Joseph Guzman and Trent Benefield, friends of Bell who were wounded during the tragic incident.
The department conducted a comprehensive independent investigation of the events surrounding the Nov. 25, 2006, shooting that resulted in Bell’s death. A team of experienced civil rights prosecutors and agents reviewed all of the materials and evidence generated and provided by the Queens County District Attorney’s Office and the NYPD, including witness statements, crime scene evidence, ballistics reports, reconstruction analyses, medical reports, state grand jury proceedings and the state trial record. Federal officials also took additional investigative steps, including interviewing numerous individuals, such as Bell’s friends who witnessed the shooting, and retaining an independent ballistics reconstruction expert to conduct an analysis of significant ballistics evidence and to review the ballistics and reconstruction analyses performed by the NYPD.
Under the applicable federal criminal civil rights laws, prosecutors must establish, beyond a reasonable doubt, that a law enforcement officer willfully deprived an individual of a constitutional right, meaning with the deliberate and specific intent to do something the law forbids. This is the highest standard of intent imposed by law, and is different and higher than the intent standard under the relevant state statutes. Neither accident, mistake, fear, negligence nor bad judgment is sufficient to establish a federal criminal civil rights violation.
After a careful and thorough review, a team of experienced federal prosecutors and FBI agents determined that the evidence was insufficient to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the law enforcement personnel who fired at Bell, Guzman and Benefield acted willfully. Accordingly, the investigation into this incident has been closed.
The Civil Rights Division, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York and the FBI devoted significant time and resources to complete a thorough analysis of the evidence developed during the investigation.