Saturday, May 23, 2015

Judge John P. O’Donnell with mannequins showing the gunshot wounds to Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams.

Judge John P. O’Donnell with mannequins showing the gunshot wounds to Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams.

By Mitch Smith and Ashley Southall

CLEVELAND — A police officer who climbed onto the hood of a car after a chase in 2012 and fired repeatedly at its unarmed occupants, both of them black, was acquitted of manslaughter on Saturday by an Ohio judge.

The trial of the white officer, Michael Brelo, following harrowing episodes in communities such as Baltimore, Staten Island and Ferguson, Mo., played out amid broader questions of how the police interact with African-Americans and use force, in Cleveland and across the country.

Officer Brelo, 31, was one of 13 officers who fired 137 rounds at Timothy Russell and his passenger, Malissa Williams, who were killed after a chase through the area on Nov. 29, 2012. Officer Brelo fired his Glock 17 pistol 49 times, including at least 15 shots after he reloaded and climbed onto the hood of Mr. Russell’s 1979 Chevrolet Malibu and the other officers had stopped firing.

Officer Brelo fired his Glock 17 pistol 49 times, including at least 15 shots after he reloaded and climbed onto the hood of Mr. Russell’s 1979 Chevrolet Malibu and the other officers had stopped firing.

The chase started downtown after reports of gunfire from the car; prosecutors said the noise apparently was the result of the car’s backfiring. More than 100 officers pursued the car for more than 20 miles at speeds that reached 100 miles an hour. They began firing when the car was stopped and cornered.

While Officer Brelo did fire lethal shots at the two people, testimony did not prove that his shots caused either death, according to the ruling of Judge John P. O’Donnell of the Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court. “The state did not prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant, Michael Brelo, knowingly caused the deaths of Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams,” he ruled.

Officer Brelo, a former Marine who had opted for a bench trial, sat stoically throughout the four-week trial. On Saturday, he could be seen shifting in his seat, at times sitting back, and at other times resting his head in his hands. At one point, he made a quick sign of the cross. He embraced his lawyers after the verdict. He remains on an unpaid suspension.

Defense lawyers said their client had feared for his life and believed gunfire was coming from Mr. Russell’s car. No gun was recovered, and prosecutors said Mr. Russell and Ms. Williams had been unarmed.

Patrick A. D’Angelo, one of Officer Brelo’s lawyers, said his team was “elated” with the verdict, and he blamed an “oppressive government” for bringing the charges. “We stood tall; we stood firm,” Mr. D’Angelo said, “because we didn’t do anything illegal. We didn’t do anything wrong.”

But the verdict does not mean the end of scrutiny of the case or of police issues in Cleveland.

Federal officials will review the trial testimony and evidence, and a city panel is investigating Mr. Brelo’s actions and police conduct in the episode. Five supervisors face misdemeanor charges for their oversight of the case.

There are also two ongoing investigations of police shootings in November. One is looking into the death of Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old black boy who was holding a replica gun when a white Cleveland police officer shot him. That shooting, captured on video, has also garnered national attention and resulted in protests.

In the other, the Cuyahoga County prosecutor’s office is investigating the death of Tanisha Anderson. Ms. Anderson, a 37-year-old black woman whose family said she suffered from bipolar disorder, lost consciousness and died in police custody after being placed face down on the pavement. The medical examiner ruled her death a homicide.

The windshield and hood of Timothy Russell’s Chevrolet. Credit Aaron Josefczyk/Reuters 

The verdict on Saturday was met with anger by many, particularly blacks. Last year, the Justice Department found a pattern of “unreasonable and unnecessary use of force” within the department.

Representative Marcia L. Fudge, a Democrat whose district is based in Cleveland, said Judge O’Donnell’s verdict was “a stunning setback.”

“The verdict is another chilling reminder of a broken relationship between the Cleveland police department and the community it serves,” she said. “Today we have been told — yet again — our lives have no value.”

At a midafternoon news conference, Cleveland’s mayor and police chief said there had been a number of nonviolent demonstrations in the city and that officers were working to keep the protests under control.

“So far, the protesters are making their voices heard, but they are doing it in a peaceful and very respectful way,” Mayor Frank Jackson said just after 4 p.m. “Police are doing an excellent job of monitoring the situation and protecting everyone’s rights — protesters and everyone else.”

A protest march continued into the evening, with more than 100 demonstrators chanting and blocking traffic downtown. There were several tense moments, including some minor scuffles and games of cat-and-mouse with the police, and unruliness with Cleveland Indians fans leaving the baseball stadium, but the event remained largely peaceful. The crowd dwindled as the evening went on, and the police first made a handful of arrests after 9 p.m., the time protesters were ordered to disperse.

DeVrick Stewart, 29, of Cleveland, said he had been marching since the morning and saw broad issues with how the police treat people.

“I came out because this seems to be a world issue,” said Mr. Stewart, who mentioned both the Brelo case and Tamir Rice’s death. “It’s not a white or black issue. It’s a police versus society issue.”

Protesters who were arrested on Saturday after the acquittal of Officer Michael Brelo of the Cleveland Police Department. Credit Tony Dejak/Associated Press 

Timothy McGinty, the Cuyahoga County prosecutor, said in a news conference after the verdict that the investigation had led to several changes that he believed would prevent deaths, including better use-of-force training and increased penalties for officers who disregard department policies. As a result of the changes, “there will never have to be another Brelo trial,” he said.

Five police supervisors have been charged with dereliction of duty, a misdemeanor, for failing to bring the fatal chase under control. “We look forward to presenting another vigorous prosecution,” Mr. McGinty said.

In a statement, the United States attorney’s office, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice said they would review the testimony and evidence.

“We will continue our assessment, review all available legal options and will collaboratively determine what, if any, additional steps are available and appropriate given the requirements and limitations of the applicable laws in the federal judicial system,” the statement said.

In 2013, the Critical Incident Review Committee was formed to review the shooting. Cleveland’s police chief, Calvin D. Williams, said during a news conference that, so far, 72 officers had been suspended without pay. One supervisor was fired, and two more were demoted. Administrative charges against three officers were dismissed. The review was paused during Officer Brelo’s trial, but was expected to resume after the verdict.

Nine of the police officers disciplined for their roles in the shooting have filed a federal lawsuit against the city for racial discrimination. The officers — eight whites and one Hispanic — claim that they were disciplined more harshly because they were not black.

After the verdict, Officer Brelo’s future with the department remained unclear. Stephen S. Loomis, the president of the Cleveland Police Patrolmen’s Association, said Officer Brelo was going on a vacation with his family, but it was not known if he would be able to return to work.

During the trial, prosecutors argued that Officer Brelo’s actions crossed the line from justifiable to reckless when he climbed onto the car’s hood, but the judge disagreed.

Malissa Williams, left, and Timothy Russell. Credit Cleveland Police Department 

Before rendering his verdict, Judge O’Donnell spoke from the bench about widespread tensions between the police and African-Americans, mentioning Ferguson and Baltimore.

“In many American places, people are angry with, mistrustful and fearful of, the police,” he said. “Citizens think the men and women sworn to protect and serve have violated that oath or never meant it in the first place.”

But Judge O’Donnell said he would not let those sentiments cloud his verdict, and he found that Officer Brelo had reasonably perceived a threat from Mr. Russell’s car. The decision to continue firing from the hood was protected by law, he ruled, clearing Officer Brelo of all charges. The shooting was “reasonable despite knowing now that there was no gun in the car and he was mistaken about the gunshots,” Judge O’Donnell said.

“I reject the claim that 12 seconds after the shooting began, it was patently clear from the perspective of a reasonable police officer that the threat had been stopped,” he said, contrasting the prosecutors’ claims that the justifiable action ended when Officer Brelo climbed onto the hood.

Officer Brelo will remain on unpaid suspension while the review panel that was formed after the shooting continues its investigation into his actions and those of 12 other officers involved, Chief Williams said. In November, the City of Cleveland agreed to pay $3 million to settle wrongful-death lawsuits brought by the families of Mr. Russell and Ms. Williams.

Surrounded by members of Mr. Russell’s family on Saturday afternoon, Paul Cristallo, a lawyer for the family, said relatives were “hugely disappointed” with the verdict. He said that the police created the chaotic circumstances that ultimately led to Officer Brelo’s acquittal. Police officers are trained to de-escalate tensions with civilians, he said, but that “doesn’t include surrounding them with 62 cars and having 13 officers shooting at them.”

“Fleeing and eluding shouldn’t get you the death penalty,” he added.

Mr. Russell’s sister, Michelle, lamented that the trial had relied on the version of events told by police officers, and said her brother and Ms. Williams were never able to tell their side of the story. The police officers were angry, she said, and acted with a “mob mentality.”

“They knew that night that once they caught up to Tim and Malissa that they were going to let them have it,” she said. “And that’s exactly what happened.”

But in closing arguments, Mr. D’Angelo said his client believed he was under attack when he fired on the car. “What would make him want to shoot through the windshield at another human being?” Mr. D’Angelo said. “Could it be that he was shot at? Could it be that he reasonably perceived that the occupants of the Malibu were shooting at him? That’s what all the other officers perceived. That’s what Officer Brelo perceived.”

Mitch Smith reported from Cleveland, and Ashley Southall from New York. Rodney Bengston contributed reporting from Cleveland.

NY Times
May 23rd, 2015
Shame on the judge! Being chased by police over a stolen car is not grounds for execution! And what military or police officer's training involves running up and jumping onto the hood of a car, anyway, if suspects are firing from the car? And since when is unloading 137 bullets into a car that "might" have fired a single shot considered safe and reasonable use of force?

And how can you fire a pistol, as much as possible, at 2 people sitting in a car, from a few feet away, and "unknowingly" cause their death?

This kind of case gives all cops in Cleveland carte blanche to kill people.
 Addendum - Headline of the story and photos sometimes changed to improve or update article content. Text always as originally posted by source.

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