BELOW: PROTESTERS AT COURTHOUSE AFTER VERDICT, AND FLOODING 4TH STREET IN DOWNTOWN CLEVELAND
Protesters gather after Michael Brelo acquitted and discharged
Unarmed Malissa Williams and Timothy Russell were killed in 2012, Williams shot 24 times, Russell 23 times
No Black officers involved in pursuit by 100 police cars; Cleveland 53.3 % Black, cops 75 % white/other
By Daniel McGraw in Cleveland
May 23, 2015
A Cleveland police officer who stood on the hood of a car and fired his gun 49 times through the windshield at two unarmed passengers has been found not guilty on two counts of voluntary manslaughter.
Michael Brelo was also found not guilty of felonious assault, and discharged.
On Saturday morning, Cuyahoga County judge John P O’Donnell said prosecutors failed to prove without a reasonable doubt that bullets fired by officer Brelo were the cause of death of Malissa Williams and Timothy Russell, or that Brelo had no fear for his own life during the volley of gunfire that ended a high-speed car chase on 29 November 2012.
“The verdict should be no cause for a civilized society to celebrate or riot,” O’Donnell said in remarks preceding a lengthy reading of 10 pages of his 35-page verdict, in which he discussed the wounds suffered by Williams and Russell, which were indicated on two mannequins in court, and the views and actions of other police officers involved in the shooting.
After O’Donnell delivered his verdict, some African American spectators in the court house shouted: “No justice, no peace!”
After the verdict, about 40 protesters gathered outside the courthouse in downtown. The peaceful protest turned a little ugly as Brelo’s attorney, Patrick D’Angelo, made his way outside for TV interviews.
NEWS MEDIA ALONG FOR THE RIDE: Watch the unedited video as NewsChannel5 multi-media journalist Mike Vielhaber rides along with police on the night Cleveland officers shot and killed two people who were suspects in a chase.
The small crowd surrounded D’Angelo and some screamed “protector of killers” as he was escorted back into the court house by sheriff deputies.
Police quickly barricaded the roads around the court house, closing them to vehicle traffic but permitting people to protest in the street.
“This verdict was no surprise to the black community,” said one African American community activist outside the court house. “The law is written so the police can get away with abusing people of color, and this is proof of how that works.”
Brelo’s trial ended about three weeks ago, and was decided by a judge instead of a jury at the request of the defendant. The move allowed the decision to be made by a judge looking only at the strict legal interpretation of the case, rather than by a jury that might render a decision based more on emotion.
Sources have told the Guardian that O’Donnell waited so long to issue his verdict in order to give the city time to prepare for any resultant civic unrest of the kind seen recently in Ferguson, Missouri and Baltimore after cases involving deaths at the hands of police.
The judge picked a Saturday morning on a holiday weekend to announce the verdict, the sources said, to provide an extra day for law enforcement to calm the city, and also as a way to lessen problems that might be caused by high school students.
In recent years, downtown Cleveland has experienced some acts of mob violence carried out by high school students – in particular on St Patrick’s Day this year.
Brelo, 31, joined the Cleveland police department in 2007, having served in the marine corps in Iraq. He was charged with two counts of voluntary manslaughter. Each count can carry a sentence of three to eight years in prison.
O’Donnell would also have decided the sentencing. The 50-year-old judge, in office since 2002 and elected as a Democrat throughout his career, ran for the Ohio supreme court but was defeated by a Republican.
Brelo’s trial resulted from a police chase on November 29, 2012, when Malissa Williams and Timothy Russell led police on a 20-minute pursuit that involved 60 police cars and about 100 police officers. The chase began when their car, a 1979 Chevy Malibu, apparently backfired as it passed police headquarters in downtown Cleveland. The noise was mistaken for a gunshot.
Williams, 30, and Russell, 43, were boxed into a middle-school parking lot when 13 Cleveland police officers fired 137 shots into the car in an 18-second volley. Brelo fired the most – 49 shots total – including 15 at the end of the barrage while standing on the hood of the car, aiming at the pair through the windshield. Even though a dozen other officers fired 88 bullets into the car, only Brelo was charged.
If Brelo was fearful that he or another officer or a bystander might get hurt, he was entitled to use deadly force [the defense argued].
The prosecution also had to prove that Brelo’s actions led to the deaths of Williams and Russell, meaning the bullets fired from his gun were the ones that killed them. No forensic science experts could say with any certainty that any of Brelo’s 49 bullets resulted in death.
The prosecution’s expert witnesses testified that all the shots fired by police were justifiable – except for the 15 Brelo fired from on top of the car.
Prosecutors conceded that those 15 shots would have been justified had Brelo not been standing on the hood. In other words, if Brelo had fired the same shots into the windshield standing in front of the car with his feet on the ground, he probably would not have been charged.
The Brelo case caused widespread outrage and led to an investigation of the use of excessive force by the Cleveland police department. In February 2013, the Ohio attorney general, Mike DeWine, found that the chase and killing of Russell and Williams represented “a systematic failure in the Cleveland police department”.
Last December, after a 21-month investigation sparked by the case, the then US attorney general Eric Holder released a report that found Cleveland police had engaged in a pattern and practice of excessive force, including unnecessary deadly force. The Department of Justice report alleged that the excessive force violated Cleveland citizens’ constitutional rights, and was based on more than 600 incidents between 2012 and 2013.
‘Chaotic and dangerous’ Cleveland police shamed in withering government report
Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson has been in office for 10 years, during which time, according to a report in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, “in more than 60 lawsuits, citizens accused officers of needlessly shooting at them, beating them during routine traffic stops, shocking them with Tasers while face-down on the ground in handcuffs or arresting them when they had committed no crime”.
Those lawsuits cost the city more than $8m to resolve, according to the report.
Adding to the Cleveland police department’s problems is the ongoing investigation into the killing of 12-year-old Tamir Rice. . The boy was holding a toy pellet gun when he was shot by police in a city park last November.
With expectations that a not guilty verdict might spark riots similar to those seen in Baltimore last month, Cleveland police and city leaders met various community groups in private,warning them to be wary of “outside agitators” who might try to turn peaceful protests violent. Neighborhood outreach teams included religious leaders, youth league coaches, business leaders, motorcycle club members and former gang members, in an effort to keep the peace regardless of the verdict.
Cleveland police earlier released the names of the 13 officers in the deaths of Malissa Williams and Timothy Russell. They are: Patrol Officer WIlfredo Diaz #350 Appointment Date: 11-03-08; Patrol Officer Michael Brelo #416 Appointment Date: 10-15-07; Patrol Officer Cynthia Moore #1277 Appointment Date: 10-15-07; Patrol Officer Michael Farley #409 Appointment Date: 04-08-96; Patrol Officer Brian Sabolik #1021 Appointment Date: 01-10-1; Patrol Officer Paul Box #2526 Appointment Date: 08-19-96; Patrol Officer Randy Patrick #1580 Appointment Date: 08-04-97; Patrol Officer Scott Sistek #1395 Appointment Date: 02-25-08; Detective Michael Demchak #1621 Appointment Date: 10-23-82; Detective Erin O’Donnell #1027 Appointment Date: 09-28-98; Detective Christopher Ereg #767 Appointment Date: 08-30-99; Detective Michael Rinkus #2182 Appointment Date: 01-06-92; Detective William Salupo #1969 Appointment Date: 02-17-98.
Above: David Russell, Timothy’s brother, testifies during trial, showing photos of his large family.