For the New York City police officers acquitted in the 50-shot fatal shooting of Sean Bell were well served to waive a jury trial. “The defense made a very wise choice,” veteran defense attorney Gerald Shargel told Newsday. Generally considered risky for civilian defendants, opting for a bench trial is a standard practice for police defendants. Attorneys who represent police say judges tend to be familiar with law enforcement procedures and are less prone than juries to react viscerally to the death of an unarmed victim. “You expect a judge to put aside the emotion of the tragedy that there is a dead bridegroom and two other injured individuals who did not possess a weapon,” said attorney Steven Worth.
The strategy does not always result in acquittals. In 2005, a judge convicted an officer of negligent homicide for fatally shooting an unarmed immigrant. Fordham University law Prof. Jim Cohen said it was a “truism” that officers “almost always dobetter by waiving a jury trial and letting a judge decide.” In the Bell case, experts agreed that putting the case solely in the hands of Judge Arthur Cooperman — a 28-year veteran who has said he plans to retire and will not face another election — was a solid strategy, but they differed over how crucial it was. Defense lawyer Ron Kuby called the choice of a bench trial for the three officers — two black and one white — “the single decisive factor” in the acquittals. “Cooperman sees police every day. Usually he sees police witnesses who are usually telling the truth,” Kuby said. “Who are the young black men he sees? Usually defendants who are before him for sentencing.”