Cleveland Cop Found Not Guilty In Death Of Two Unarmed Individuals

A Cleveland police officer has been acquitted of manslaughter and other charges in a case that resulted in the death of two African-American individuals.

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In a case that did not receive much national attention before today, but which touches upon many of the issues regarding the relationship between the police and the public, and most especially minority communities, an Ohio Judge today found a Cleveland Police Office not guilty of manslaughter in a case where a high-speed chase and massive shootout resulted in the death of two African-American individuals:

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

The trial of the officer, Michael Brelo, played out amid broader questions about how the police interact with African-Americans and the use force, in Cleveland and across the country.

Officer Brelo was one of several officers who shot at Timothy Russell and his passenger, Malissa Williams, during a chase through the Cleveland area on Nov. 29, 2012. The chase, which started in downtown Cleveland, began after reports of gunfire from the car; prosecutors said the noise may have been the car backfiring.

After the gunfire reports, over 100 officers pursued the car for more than 20 miles at speeds that reached 100 miles an hour. Police officers fired 137 rounds at the car after it was cornered, prosecutors have said, including 49 by Officer Brelo.

Other officers stopped firing after Mr. Russell’s Chevy Malibu was surrounded and came to a stop, but prosecutors said Officer Brelo had climbed onto the car’s hood and fired at least 15 rounds from close range. Mr. Russell and Ms. Williams, who were black, died of their wounds. Officer Brelo, 31, is white.

Prosecutors said Officer Brelo’s actions crossed the line from justifiable to reckless when he climbed onto the car’s hood, but the judge disagreed.

Before rendering his verdict, Judge John P. O’Donnell of the Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court spoke from the bench about widespread tensions between the police and African-Americans, mentioning Ferguson, Mo., and Baltimore.

“In many American places, people are angry with, mistrustful and fearful of the police,” Judge O’Donnell 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 he said he would not let those sentiments cloud his verdict and found that Officer Brelo had reasonably perceived a threat from the 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,” Judge O’Donnell said, contrasting the prosecutors’ claims that the justifiable action ended when Officer Brelo climbed onto the hood.

Officer Brelo, who opted for a bench trial, had sat stoically throughout the four-week trial. On Saturday, he could be seen shifting in his seat, at times resting his head in his hands. At one point, he made a quick sign of the cross.

Defense attorneys said their client had feared for his life and believed gunfire was coming from Mr. Russell’s car. Prosecutors said Mr. Russell and Ms. Williams had been unarmed.

(…)

Officer Brelo’s trial drew protesters, who cited the case as an example of overly aggressive policing in Cleveland. Last year, the Justice Department found a pattern of “unreasonable and unnecessary use of force” within the department. The verdict came as an investigation continues into the death of Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old black boy who was holding a replica gun when a Cleveland police officer shot him in November. That shooting, captured on video, has also garnered national attention and resulted in protests.

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.”

As I noted, this was not a case that received much coverage outside of Ohio until today’s verdict was read, an event that was carried lived on CNN, and it’s not a case that I paid much attention to while the trial was ongoing. For that reason, I’m not going to say one way or the other that the Judge was wrong to find that there was insufficient evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Brelo’s use of force was unreasonable and that it rose to the level of manslaughter. As I watched the verdict this morning, though, it became apparent that one important part of the facts of the case that seems to have played a key role in how the Judge ruled is that the events in question all occurred over a very short period of time. Brelo was one of a number of police officers who were involved in a high speed chase involving Russell and Williams that began with reports of someone from the car they were in having fired shots at officers in front of a courthouse and that there were other reports that shots had been fired at the group of officers that Brelo was a part of. Additionally, the events that led to theirs deaths after the chase came to an end occurred over a very short period of time and, the Judge noted, there was no evidence to suggest that anything had happened in that short period that should have led Brelo or any of the officers to realize that Russell and Williams were not a threat. If that’s a fair recitation of the facts of the case, then it’s understandable that the Judge would reach the decision that he did.  Indeed, that is essentially what Judge O’Donnell says in this portion of his recitation of his verdict. (A longer version of that verdict is available here.) Additionally, the fact that Brelo was one of a number of officers who was firing shots all of the same time makes it arguably harder to hold him individually responsible for the deaths of Russell and Williams, even if it did happen to be bullets from his gun that fired the fatal shots.

Leaving aside the facts of this individual case, one must recognize that this verdict is being handed down in the context of a whole series of other events that have happened in Cleveland and across the nation. Ever since the Michael Brown incident in Ferguson, we’ve seen a number of other incidents in New York City, South Carolina, Baltimore, as well as a case in Cleveland itself involving a twelve year old boy named Tamir Rice. Just last year, the Justice Department released its report finding a history of unreasonable and unnecessary force on the part of the Cleveland Police Department, specifically targeted against minority communities. This has led to protests across the nation as well as a renewed call for police and criminal justice reform, and this result is likely to add to that movement.

Quite honestly, it’s possible that this case would have turned out differently had it been heard by a jury. In that situation, Brelo likely would have been dealing with a jury pool that had much more skepticism of the police than a Judge would be expected to. However, Brelo chose to waive his right to a jury, which is his right. In some jurisdictions, a jury can only be waived in a criminal trial if both parties consent however, it appears that Ohio is a state where the waiver decision belongs exclusively to the Defendant regardless of what position the prosecution takes. Since it is generally the case that Judges are likely to view a criminal case quite differently than a jury will, this was a very wise decision on his attorney’s part.

There are already some protests in Cleveland, but hopefully there will not be a repeat of the violence we’ve seen in the past. In the meantime, the Justice Department has said that it is going to review the case, but based on what’s available it seems unlikely that they will find sufficient evidence of a civil rights violation here. Of course, even if this shooting was justified, the issues about police behavior and the relationship between police and minority communities remain unresolved.

FILED UNDER: Law and the Courts, Race and Politics, US Politics, , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. Jack says:

    More cops get away with murder–details on page A19.

  2. PJ says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    There are already some protests in Cleveland, but hopefully there will not be a repeat of the violence we’ve seen in the past.

    The violence will be repeated. As in cops will continue to unjustifiably shoot and kill minorities and get away with it.

  3. Rafer Janders says:

    There are already some protests in Cleveland, but hopefully there will not be a repeat of the violence we’ve seen in the past.

    Seems the violence is mostly inflicted by the police upon a helpless and innocent citizenry.

    Want to not repeat the violence? Send these murdering killer cops to jail.

  4. Jack says:

    @PJ:

    The violence will be repeated. As in cops will continue to unjustifiably shoot and kill minorities and get away with it.

    A cops decision to kill a person has nothing to do with skin color. These cops were on a mission–kill. That is the one and only explanation for jumping on someone’s hood and unloading 15 more rounds after everyone else has stopped firing.

    Black lives matter–only when a white cop is doing the killing.

  5. Jack says:

    @Rafer Janders: Agreed.

    No non-tin badge wearing person would be able to get away with this egregious behavior and not be put in prison.

  6. Rafer Janders says:

    There are already some protests in Cleveland, but hopefully there will not be a repeat of the violence we’ve seen in the past.

    Can’t say it enough: a large part of the violence at protests is instigated by the police themselves. They routinely incite, beat and abuse peaceful protestors.

  7. Jack says:

    @Rafer Janders:

    Can’t say it enough: a large part of the violence at protests is instigated by the police themselves. They routinely incite, beat and abuse peaceful protestors.

    And heaven forbid someone has a camera and wants to document police actions for accountability purposes.

  8. anjin-san says:

    The war on black folks continues…

  9. Jack says:

    @anjin-san:

    The war on black folks continues…

    Clearly….eyeroll.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AhLmjUZB5V0

  10. Gustopher says:

    Well, the only time people care about police violence is when someone sets fire to a CVS, so I guess someone needs to set fire to a CVS.

  11. Jack says:

    @Gustopher:

    so I guess someone needs to set fire to a CVS.

    You wouldn’t be using your 1st amendment to encouraging lawlessness and attempt to incite violence? Would you?

  12. Davebo says:

    You know how all Muslims are expected to speak out against the extremists and black leaders are supposed to speak out against the rioters? Where are the good cops speaking out against the murders?

    A great comment on this at Balloon Juice.

    Never going to happen.

  13. Hal_10000 says:

    It seemed to me that the judge got tangled up in whether Brelo delivered the actual fatal shot. Needless to say, this is not a standard that is used on civilians. If you and I blazed away at someone, we’d both be charged with murder. Indeed, the surviving Branch Davidians were charged with murder (and convicted of manslaughter) without any concern about whether this particular Davidian shot that particular ATF agent.

  14. Another Mike says:

    There have been enough of these cases that we ought to have figured out the attitude of the cops by now. In my thinking it does like this. “I have a wife and kids, and I am not going to leave my wife a widow or my kids fatherless, because of some punk who flees from me, has an anti-authoritarian and belligerent attitude, and makes sudden moves which I am unable to interpret. I shoot you first, go home to my family, and if someone doesn’t like what I do, I’ll let the courts settle it. The main thing is that I go home, and maybe you don’t.”

  15. Jack says:

    @Another Mike:

    and makes sudden moves which I am unable to interp

    The notorious “furtive movement” which in police speak authorizes a cop to gun a person down and ask questions later.

  16. anjin-san says:

    @Another Mike:

    an anti-authoritarian and belligerent attitude

    If you think having such an attitude is grounds for summary execution, you are a sociopath, and probably should not have a gun and a badge.

  17. DrDaveT says:

    Officer Brelo had reasonably perceived a threat from the car.

    Only if you apply a standard of ‘reasonable’ that means I can reasonably perceive a threat from everyone I pass on the street.

    When I was a kid, cops didn’t shoot first. That doesn’t even seem to be part of the conversation any more.

  18. JohnMcC says:

    If I understand it correctly, Officer Brelo climbed onto the hood of the victims’ car and emptied his magazine into them through the windshield. It is plain that he knew that no one in that car was capable of shooting his grandstanding, silly @ss off that hood. Either he knew they were dead or that they were unarmed. Maybe that’s not murder or manslaughter. But it ought to have some very serious consequences.

  19. Stonetools says:

    Sounds to me like the defendant got the right judge. The police fired 137 bullets at the car after it backfired. The defendant jumped up on the windshield and fired 49 bullets into the car. Reasonable force, y’all.
    At this point any black person who expects justice from the American criminal justice system in a case of the cops shooting a black person is just a misguided fool. I don’t like that conclusion, but there it is.

  20. Another Mike says:

    @anjin-san:

    If you think having such an attitude is grounds for summary execution, you are a sociopath, and probably should not have a gun and a badge.

    Yes, of course.

  21. Rafer Janders says:

    @Another Mike:

    I shoot you first, go home to my family, and if someone doesn’t like what I do, I’ll let the courts settle it. The main thing is that I go home, and maybe you don’t.

    Any one who’s that paranoid, aggressive and cowardly has no business being a cop in the first place.

  22. Gustopher says:

    @Jack: No, I’m just pointing out that peaceful protest is systematically ignored, which leads to escalation.

  23. Rafer Janders says:

    @Another Mike:

    some punk who flees from me, has an anti-authoritarian and belligerent attitude,

    Such as Tamir Rice, a 12 year old boy playing in a park, or Michael Crawford, gunned down by the police while shopping at Wal-Mart? That kind of anti-authoritarian and belligerent attitude?

  24. Hal_10000 says:

    @Another Mike:

    There have been enough of these cases that we ought to have figured out the attitude of the cops by now. In my thinking it does like this. “I have a wife and kids, and I am not going to leave my wife a widow or my kids fatherless, because of some punk who flees from me, has an anti-authoritarian and belligerent attitude, and makes sudden moves which I am unable to interpret. I shoot you first, go home to my family, and if someone doesn’t like what I do, I’ll let the courts settle it. The main thing is that I go home, and maybe you don’t.”

    This attitude is instilled on them by the pseudo-military training they now receive. They don’t think this. They are told this.

  25. Gustopher says:

    When the police get away with murder, it creates a culture where citizens are afraid to call on them for help, and criminals assume they cannot surrender safely, and are more likely to fight back.

    I don’t see how that is helpful for the rank and file police officers.

    (I am a little surprised that the defense in this case wasn’t that the people in the car were already dead when the officer leaped onto the hood and shot their corpses. Did the coroner’s report indicate that they weren’t killed in the massive hail of bullets shot at the car before this?)

  26. Another Mike says:

    @Rafer Janders:

    Any one who’s that paranoid, aggressive and cowardly has no business being a cop in the first place.

    Yes, that’s easy to say, but I imagine that almost every cop who straps on a gun and goes on patrol thinks that, if it comes down to it, he intends to be the one who comes back home.

    I have never been a cop. The closest I came was as a MP transferring prisoners from jails back to military control, and accepting prisoners delivered to us by city cops and the FBI. We didn’t carry guns.

  27. Another Mike says:

    @Hal_10000:

    They don’t think this. They are told this.

    Might be so. Cops cannot tell who is the good guy and who is the bad guy, so all of us are potential bad guys. It is sort of like fighting an insurgency war with no uniforms to tell friend from foe.

    I am just trying to understand the mindset of a cop who jumps on the hood and empties his magazine into the front seat occupants. Just who in the hell did he think he was fighting? There was no fighting. There was no return fire. There couldn’t be as they were unarmed.

  28. Just 'nutha' ig'rant cracker says:

    @Rafer Janders: Well yes, but 30 some years ago, the police chief of the city I lived in noted 2 problems that society and the police were going to have to face at some point. The first was that 60 or 70 some percent of police officers came from the bottom socio-economic quartile. The second was that people in that quartile tended to believe that violence is a tool that can be used to solve problems.

    I have to assume that we are still on de Nile cruise.

  29. JohnMcC says:

    Seems the right time (actually long past time!) to inject into the conversation the fact that there is huge overabundance of firearms in our society. If I were a cop, this would be the central thought every time I had an official ‘cop’ interaction with a civilian: That guy almost surely has a pistol.

    I say this as a life-long gun-sport participant and holder of a concealed carry permit.

    I ALWAYS keep both my hands in plain sight and move very slowly & deliberately when I’m dealing with a cop. And I’m an old grey-headed, balding, white, southern veteran who’s likely to be driving my F-150 with a dog hanging out the driver’s window. I can’t imagine what my response to the average cop (as I have known cops) would be if I were a 20-something black man with a sharp ride. I’d definitely make sure my life insurance was up-to-date.

  30. superdestroyer says:

    @Rafer Janders:

    In both cases you cite, citizens had called 911 and reported that an individual was walking arouind with a gun and pointing it at people.

    In you perfect world, what should law enforcement do when people make reports to 911 about individuals pointing guns (actually rifles) at others. The risk to law enforcement from rifles is huge since a person carrying a rifle can fire at the police while the police cannot effectively shoot back.

  31. Bob @ Youngstown says:

    @superdestroyer: are you suggesting that the police should shoot first, then investigate the accuracy of the citizen’s 911 call?

  32. Tyrell says:

    The recent battle between the police and motorcycle gangs shows that the government must be careful in restricting the weapons that police have at their disposal. And that also showed that these resurgent cycle gangs are the latest worry that the FBI and Homeland Security have to deal with.
    I thought the FBI, ATF, and DOJ had put those gangs away back in the ’70’s using the rackeering laws.

  33. Tony W says:

    @Tyrell: As said on another thread, until White families start taking responsibility for how their kids are raised we’re going to have this sort of white-on-white violence that we saw in Texas. The FBI can only do so much, responsibility has to start at home.

  34. stonetools says:

    @Tony W:

    They need to stop listening to that hickety-hick country music as well. And start wearing decent clothes instead of those leather jackets and boots.
    Funny you didn’t hear any of that with respect to biker gangs.

  35. superdestroyer says:

    @Tony W:

    Why do progressive keep insisting that Jesus Delgado Rodriguez and Manuel Issac Rodriguez, two of the nine killed in Waco, are white. One would think that after the NY Times embarrassed itself by calling George Zimmerman a “white-hispanic” that progressive would take more care to check their facts. But I guess that progressives cannot let facts get in the way of an internet meme.

    See http://www.kcentv.com/story/29103997/list-of-bikers-killed-during-brawl-released for a list of names.

  36. Tony W says:

    @superdestroyer: Dude, I totally forgot how sensitive you are to racial stuff, sorry man. Didn’t mean to imply Hispanics are worthy of being called white people.

  37. superdestroyer says:

    @Tony W:

    Here is a list of those arrest due to the shoot out in Waco. cite

    It is definitely an intentional misrepresentation to say that a group that includes three (3) Garcia’s, three (3) Martinez’s, and two (2) Reyes’s as being a group of white people. Considering that people with the last names of Garcia, Martinez, and Reyes are eligible for affirmative action, minority set asides, separate and unequal admissions to universities in Texas, and have a a different legal standings that non-Hispanic whites for civil rights lawsuits and hate crimes, then no, the fight was not really between two groups of Whites. No matter how many progressive websites repeat the incorrect meme that what occurred in Waco was a riot among county music listening, red neck whites, the facts show that a significant number of those involved were Latinos.

  38. Tony W says:

    @superdestroyer: Man, Super-D can sure take the bait…you are making it too easy.

  39. superdestroyer says:

    @Tony W:

    Once again, progressives always use snark when they have nothing else to say. I guess repeating racist, false memes from progressive websites is what passes for progressive intellectual thought these days.

  40. Tyrell says:

    @Rafer Janders: No. What happens is that outsiders come in and stir things up. They are well armed, trained, and organized. They are not residents of the area. Once they get things going (burning, looting, fire bombing) they disappear into the night. The local rock throwers are the ones who get arrested.The goal is insurrection and turmoil.
    After seeing the carnage in Waco, I am not sure that the government should be disarming and controlling the local police. We don’t need a motorcycle gang threat on top of everything else.

  41. Monala says:

    @superdestroyer: I looked at the list, and counted 38 Hispanic names. 38 out of 170 = 22%. There were 2 Hispanic names among the 9 killed. 2 out of 9 = 22% also. So, between one-fourth and one-fifth of the people involved were Latino. Of the photos I’ve seen, no one looks to be African-American or Asian. That means that 75-80% of the people involved were white. And somehow we still can’t say this is a white problem, when a significant majority of the people involved were white? By the way, non-Hispanic whites are about 46% of the population of Waco, so whites were disproportionately represented in this event.

    Meanwhile, conservatives continually call crime and welfare black problems (because African-Americans are disproportionately represented) even though those, too, involve a majority (or at least a plurality, depending on the issue) of white people.

  42. superdestroyer says:

    @Monala:

    If you look at census data, Mclennan County Texas where Waco is located is 58% non-Hispanic white and 24% Hispanic. So the shoot out had a represenatitive number of Hispanics. http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/48/48309.html

    You would have a point if the riots in Baltimore involved 22% whites but I doubt you can provide a reference that shows that. Also, what is amazing is that the federal government does not use the term Hispanics or Latino on the FD-249 FBI Criminal Fingerprint Card. All Hispanic get lumped in with non-Hispanic whites when it comes crime data. It would not really matter except when pundits and wonks are calculating the ratio of black crime to white crime, they include Hispanics with the white data while implying that the data only includes non-Hispanic whites.

    http://www.fbi.gov/about-us/cjis/fingerprints_biometrics/guidelines-for-preparation-of-fingerprint-cards-and-association-criminal-history-information

    I know you are trying to minimize the racist meme that progressives are using to minimize black criminal behavior but if Fox News had claimed that a group of criminals was all black when it was really 22% white, progressives would be screaming that Fox News was lying and using such a claim to discredit Fox News. I would suggest that progressive hold themselves to the same standards that they demand of others.

  43. gVOR08 says:

    @superdestroyer: A friend of mine makes a big deal out of Obama being half white. Took me a long time to figure out why, and a few weeks ago he actually said it straight out, if Obama’s half white, he’s not black, ergo it’s not racist to hate him over nothing.

    Some of us aren’t really into parsing race to the degree you are.

  44. gVOR08 says:

    @Tony W: If only Obama had spoken out on white-on-white violence.

  45. superdestroyer says:

    @gVOR08:

    Progressives were in front of the Supreme Court in 2012 arguing that race and ethnicity are so important that the University of Texas should be allowed to have separate and unequal admission process. Of course, this followed similar arguments in Bakke, Hopwood, Gratz, and Grutter. During the 2014 gubernatorial elections in Mayrland, the Democrat has on the issue that having blacks and whites performing at the same level (closing the racial gap) was more important than actually improving academic performance. In 2015, Montgomery County Maryland is trying to hire a new superintendent but cannot find anyone who wants to take on closing the racial gap.

    Not a day goes by where I read a progressive column that points out that blacks are arrested at a hire rate than whites. That blacks are in prison at a higher ray. That blacks are disciplined in school at a higher rate. That black unemployment rate is higher than whites

    If progressives want to claim that they are not hung up on parsing race, they have a very odd way of showing it.

  46. DrDaveT says:

    @gVOR08:

    if Obama’s half white, he’s not black, ergo it’s not racist to hate him over nothing

    Your friend has clearly never seen Show Boat.

  47. gVOR08 says:

    @DrDaveT: Probably not. However, he’d have no problem rationalizing around the one drop doctrine. Probably the usual – that was in the bad old days when Democrats (therefore liberals) ran Jim Crow, before the Republicans bravely passed the Civil Rights Act. In the current case he needed to rationalize his hatred of all things Obama without admitting to racism.

    That’s why I’ve never quite agreed with Reynolds that conservatism revolves around lack of imagination. They seem incredibly imaginative when it comes to resolving their cognitive dissonance.

  48. Monala says:

    @superdestroyer: You’ve made my point. To many conservatives, it doesn’t matter that the vast majority of AAs are not criminals, or on welfare; it doesn’t matter that the largest percentage of people involved in most negative indicators (such as welfare rates) are made up of white people; it doesn’t matter that violent crime rates and out-of-wedlock birth rates have continually declined in the AA community over the last 25 years, and high school graduation and college attendance rates have continually increased since the end of the Civil Rights Movement. None of those things are enough to not tar the entire black community with every negative incident that occurs.

    Yet in a violent incident in which a significant majority of the actors were white, and in fact, were disproportionately white compared to their percentage in the given community — well, according to conservatives like you, that says absolutely nothing about white people since the people involved weren’t 100% white, some of them were Hispanic!