Jury finds Bell guilty of manslaughter

Published 10:09 pm Friday, September 28, 2018

A Lincoln County jury took a little less than three hours Friday night to find Cordarryl Bell guilty of manslaughter and aggravated assault in the shooting death of 26-year-old Aquarius Nelson.

The evidence and testimony was not enough to convince the 12-member body to return a verdict of first- or second-degree murder on the first count. But jurors did believe the prosecution’s claim that pivotal witness Joshua Cole was behind the wheel of the white Chrysler 300 that drove Nelson to his fatal meetup with Bell at a home on Walnut Street on Nov. 2, 2015, and that Bell’s firing at Cole while he sat in the car constituted aggravated assault.

Members of Nelson’s family began to sniffle and cry when the verdict was read to the court. Nelson’s brother, 30-year-old Victor Nelson, blinked away tears as he thanked prosecutors for their work on his late brother’s case.

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“I’m feeling like justice has been served,” he said. “I want to thank the prosecutors for what they’re doing, and that’s about all I got to say. There is a God. Justice has been served.”

Lincoln County Assistant District Attorney Brendon Adams said his office was pleased with the jury’s verdict.

“We would have liked to have seen a conviction for murder, but this will at least give Aquarius Nelson’s family a little closure,” he said. 

Bell sat straight-faced as the verdict was read aloud, though he seemed surprised when courtroom security handcuffed him for remanding back to the Lincoln County Jail. Sentencing for his charges is scheduled for 1 p.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 30. Each charge carries a maximum of 20 years in prison.

Defense attorney Imhotep Alkebu-lan said he would begin the appeals process the same day by filing a motion for judgment notwithstanding verdict and seek a new trial.

“It’s disappointing, and we’re going to keep fighting it,” Alkebu-lan said. “The jury is saying it’s not murder, but they’re convinced, as a result of the prosecution’s argument, that it was Cole in that car.”

The trial was the second for Bell this year, after proceedings for the same charges ended in a hung jury in April. The September trial featured a few new witnesses and evidence not examined in the previous trial, but witnesses largely stuck to their same stories. Conflicting testimony was a hurdle for prosecution and defense in both trials.

Much of the afternoon on Day Four was spent in closing arguments, with each side attempting to build up the credibility of witnesses who supported them and tear down the testimony of those who didn’t.

Lincoln County District Attorney Dee Bates was first to make the pitch, starting off his address by reminding jurors a self-defense case must respond to a threat that is “actual, present and urgent,” and taking the next 50 minutes to describe how Bell was never in danger. 

He leaned hard on forensic evidence, pointing out all 11 shots fired at the scene came from the barrel of Bell’s gun, and that the position of the spent casings suggested Bell advanced on Nelson as he fired.

“The shooter is moving forward, in an aggressive manner,” Bates said, dragging the red dot of a laser pointer across an evidence photo of the house on Walnut Street. “That is not a defensive posture.”

Bates also pointed out autopsy reports that showed a facial wound on Nelson’s right cheek was caused by a grazing bullet fired at his face, and that other entry wounds on Nelson’s lower left side could not have penetrated there had he been turning to face Bell with a weapon, as Bell claimed.

Alkebu-lan was slow, measured and quiet during his closing argument — so quiet the court reporter requested he speak up at one point — rebuilding his four-day narrative that Bell retreated to his friend Andrew Fortson’s house because he feared for his life against a group of acquaintances who knew him and how to find him. 

He impressed upon the jury Nelson’s and Cole’s familiarity with Lattrick Williams — who Bell claims fired at him earlier that day in retaliation, mistakenly, for the shooting of Christopher Stringer — and Fortson’s testimony that he didn’t know Nelson or owe him money, the reason Cole testified he and Nelson drove to Fortson’s home on Walnut Street to begin with.

“Who does Cole know? Who does Aquarius Nelson know? Who does Calvin Haynes know? Who does Lattrick Williams know? They all know Bell — none of them know Fortson,” Alkebu-lan said. “They came over there to kill Bell, and Bell knew what was up.”

Alkebu-lan restated Bell’s claim Haynes changed places behind the wheel of the Chrysler 300 with Cole before taking Nelson to KDMC, pointing to the first 911 call from nearby Independence Street — where Haynes lives — as proof. The caller could not be verified by Brookhaven police, but told 911 dispatchers “Bell” was shooting nearby.

“The only people who knew Bell was involved in a shooting were the people in that white Chrysler,” Alkebu-lan said. “They did that farce of a 911 call.”

The closing arguments began at 1:32 p.m. after judge Mike Taylor denied Alkebu-lan’s motion for a direct verdict, in which he claimed the state did not meet the burden of proof for a murder charge.