New York City agreed Tuesday to pay $3.25 million to settle a wrongful-death suit brought by the family of Sean Bell, the unarmed man who died in a hail of 50 police bullets outside a Queens strip club the night before his wedding in a notorious 2006 shooting incident.
Joseph Guzman, 34, and Trent Benefield, 26, two passengers in Bell's car who attended his bachelor party and were wounded in the shooting, will receive $3 million and $900,000 respectively in the settlement, for a total of $7.15 million.
The deal, struck last evening after two full days of negotiation in federal court in Brooklyn, was lauded by both sides as a fair financial resolution, but Bell's lawyer and his fiancee Nicole Paultre Bell - who will administer the money for the benefit of their two children - urged police use-of-force reforms.
"I believe the settlement is fair, but the most important thing is that our fight, my fight, doesn't end here," said Paultre Bell, 26, mother of Jordyn Bell, 4, and Jada Bell, 7. "No amount of money can provide closure."
Sanford Rubenstein, the attorney representing all three plaintiffs, said the families will keep pushing for a package of reforms stalled in Albany that would provide for independent prosecutors in police shooting cases, post-shooting drug and alcohol testing and more police training.
The racially charged shooting of Bell, 23, and his two friends occurred on Nov. 25, 2006, after a bachelor party just hours before his scheduled wedding.
Undercover cops investigating prostitution at the club said they believed someone in the car had a gun. Detectives Michael Oliver, Gescard Isnora and Marc Cooper were acquitted in a state court trial and federal prosecutors declined to pursue civil rights charges.
The city will pay all the damages. "The Sean Bell shooting highlighted the complexities our dedicated officers must face each day," said Corporation Counsel Michael Cardozo. "The city regrets the loss of life in this tragic case and we share our deepest condolences with the Bell family."
Other reactions, however, suggested bitter feelings still linger. Michael Paladino, head of the Detectives Endowment Association, complained that Bell's survivors were getting a big payday despite evidence he was partially responsible because he was driving while intoxicated. He also lamented Rubenstein's anticipated one-third fee.
"I think the settlement is a joke," Paladino said. "The detectives were exonerated . . . and now the taxpayer is on the hook for $7 million and the attorneys are in line to get $2 million without suffering a scratch."
Paladino said the detectives had been on desk duty since the incident but have not faced disciplinary proceedings.
Guzman, limping on a cane and wearing a leg brace, said outside the courthouse he still has four bullets in his body and didn't think the settlement changed an underlying reality.
"I don't think a black man's or a Hispanic man's life means much in this city," he said. "It will happen again."