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CNB CRIME: Acquittal for Cleveland Police Officer on Killing Unarmed Couple

By BRIAN GROSH / May 23, 2015

 CLEVELAND (CN) - A judge acquitted the police officer Saturday who killed two unarmed, black suspects after vaulting onto the hood of their car and firing 15 shots through the windshield.
     With Michael Brelo, 31, having waived his right to a trial by jury, Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Judge John O'Donnell took two and a half weeks to decide the Cleveland police officer's fate.
     When O'Donnell began deliberations at the conclusion of the five-week trial on May 5, he noted that he would likely hand down his verdict after the conclusion of Cleveland Police Week, which ran from May 9 to May 17.

     Brelo has been on suspension with the force as he faced two counts of voluntary manslaughter in connection to Nov. 29, 2012, shooting of Timothy Russell, 43, and Malissa Williams, 30, following a high-speed, 22-minute car chase. The shooting compounded racial tensions in the area since Russell and Williams were black, and Brelo is white.
     Russell's 1979 light-blue Chevy Malibu was in an area known for drug deals when it caught the attention of a police officer who tried to pull it over for a turn-signal violation.
     Though the officer had let it go when Russell sped away, figuring he could follow up on the license plate the next day, other officers heard the vehicle backfire shortly thereafter as it drove past the Cuyahoga County Justice Center.
     Mistaking the sound for a gunshot, they called in a report that someone shot at them from a speeding vehicle.
     The ensuing chase reached speeds of 100 mph and, at one point, involved 62 police cars from multiple departments, including Cleveland, East Cleveland, Bratenahl, the Cuyahoga County Sheriff's Department, the Ohio State Highway Patrol and Regional Transit Authority.
     Continuous backfiring from the Malibu during the chase allegedly led police to believe that the suspects were shooting at them.
     Russell eventually drove into the parking lot of Heritage Middle School in East Cleveland where patrol cars surrounded him.
     After police formed a blockade around Russell and Williams, 13 officers fired a total of 137 shots at the suspects' vehicle during a span of 17.8 seconds.
     Brelo, a former Marine, fired 49 of those 137 rounds, and prosecutors showed that the final 15 were fired downward into the windshield.
     Pointing to footprints on the cars, the state argued that Brelo jumped from the hood of a squad car where he was initially stationed onto the Malibu as his fellow officers stopped firing.
     They said the final 15 shots followed a 2.6-second pause in the shooting.
     At closing arguments, those 2.6 seconds weighed heavy in the courtroom when defense attorney Pat D'Angelo implored O'Donnell to consider if justification for using deadly force, which thus far has been afforded to all of the officers who fired their guns before that pause, could be stripped from Brelo in such a brief amount of time.
     Cuyahoga County prosecutors, on the other hand, urged O'Donnell to consider the numerous violations of department policy that occurred during the 22-minute chase that preceded the shooting.
     A Dec. 4, 2014, report by the U.S. Justice Department triggered by Williams and Russell's deaths found that the Cleveland Division of Police engages in a pattern and practice of using unreasonable force, "including shootings ... (and head strikes with deadly weapons)."
     The report said such "poor and dangerous tactics ... place officers in situations where avoidable force becomes inevitable and places officers and civilians at unnecessary risk."
     Just over a week before the report's release, Cleveland Police had shot and killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice outside of a local recreation center where the boy had been playing with an airsoft pellet gun.
     Prosecutors wanted O'Donnell to render his decision while taking into account the results of that DOJ investigation as well as the tight-lipped behavior from other officers who witnessed the shooting.
     Seven police officers exercised their Fifth Amendment rights and refused to testify about Brelo during the trial. Five of those seven face dereliction-of-duty charges in connection with the car chase.
     With O'Donnell finding Saturday that Brelo did not act with the intent to cause death when he fired on Williams and Russell, Cleveland will now find out if it did enough to prepare for the possibility of unrest.
     The city has urged citizens this month to keep any protests nonviolent.
     A day after the conclusion of Police Week, protesters closed down Lakeside Avenue on May 18 in front of the Cuyahoga County Justice Center, demanding jail time for Brelo. At one point, they locked hands in a circle around two police officers.     
     Federal prosecutors noted late Saturday that they will now take into consideration "the testimony and evidence presented in the state trial."
     "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 Justice Department said in a statement. "This review is separate and distinct from the Civil Rights Division and U.S. Attorney's Office's productive efforts to resolve civil pattern and practice allegations under 42 U.S.C. 14141 with the city of Cleveland."