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Ohio patrolman acquitted in 2 deaths amid 137-shot barrage

The Columbian
Published:
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Michael Brelo, center, reacts after the verdict in his trial Saturday in Cleveland. Brelo, a patrolman charged in the shooting deaths of two unarmed suspects during a 137-shot barrage of gunfire was acquitted Saturday in a case that helped prompt the U.S. Department of Justice determine the city police department had a history of using excessive force and violating civil rights.
Michael Brelo, center, reacts after the verdict in his trial Saturday in Cleveland. Brelo, a patrolman charged in the shooting deaths of two unarmed suspects during a 137-shot barrage of gunfire was acquitted Saturday in a case that helped prompt the U.S. Department of Justice determine the city police department had a history of using excessive force and violating civil rights. Seated next to Brelo is attorney Patrick DiAngelo, left, and attorney Fernando Mack. Photo Gallery

Things to know about the Cleveland Police Department

By The Associated Press

Here’s a look at what has exacerbated the strain between the Cleveland Police Department and minority communities and what’s being done about it:

WHAT HAPPENED IN THE CLEVELAND OFFICER’S CASE?

Brelo was charged with voluntary manslaughter in the fatal shootings of driver Timothy Russell and passenger Malissa Williams on Nov. 29, 2012, after a high-speed chase 22 miles long. The pursuit began when Russell’s car backfired as he sped past police headquarters and observers thought someone had fired a gun. The chase involved 62 marked and unmarked cars and reached speeds of 100 mph.

Thirteen officers fired at the car in a school parking lot that night. Only Brelo, who fired 49 shots, was charged criminally because prosecutors said he fired his final 15 shots down through the windshield while standing on the car’s hood after it had stopped and because Russell and Williams no longer were a threat to officers’ lives.

Brelo’s attorneys argued that other officers fired during his final volley and their shots could have been fatal.

Things to know about the Cleveland Police Department

By The Associated Press

Here's a look at what has exacerbated the strain between the Cleveland Police Department and minority communities and what's being done about it:

WHAT HAPPENED IN THE CLEVELAND OFFICER'S CASE?

Brelo was charged with voluntary manslaughter in the fatal shootings of driver Timothy Russell and passenger Malissa Williams on Nov. 29, 2012, after a high-speed chase 22 miles long. The pursuit began when Russell's car backfired as he sped past police headquarters and observers thought someone had fired a gun. The chase involved 62 marked and unmarked cars and reached speeds of 100 mph.

Thirteen officers fired at the car in a school parking lot that night. Only Brelo, who fired 49 shots, was charged criminally because prosecutors said he fired his final 15 shots down through the windshield while standing on the car's hood after it had stopped and because Russell and Williams no longer were a threat to officers' lives.

Brelo's attorneys argued that other officers fired during his final volley and their shots could have been fatal.

At a bench trial, the judge said he couldn't determine whether Brelo alone fired the fatal shots.

HOW TROUBLED HAS THE CLEVELAND POLICE DEPARTMENT BEEN?

Cleveland's police have been maligned for years, most recently for the 137-bullet shooting and for the killing of a 12-year-old black boy, Tamir Rice, who had been playing in a park with a realistic-looking pellet gun.

The Department of Justice slammed the police in a report in December, outlining a string of excessive force and civil rights violations. Then-Attorney General Eric Holder announced that a lengthy investigation concluded officers unnecessarily fired their guns, hit suspects in the head with their weapons and used stun guns on handcuffed people.

The city and the Department of Justice are negotiating a consent decree aimed at reforming the police department.

Residents' discontent with police has gone beyond allegations of excessive force, though. Six years ago, the police department came under criticism following the discovery of 11 women's bodies in a home where the stench of death hung over a poverty-stricken neighborhood for months. The victims' families accused police of failing to properly investigate the disappearances because most of the women were poor drug addicts.

WHAT'S NEXT

The Department of Justice, U.S. attorney's office and the FBI will review the testimony and evidence in Brelo's case and examine all available legal options, said Vanita Gupta, head of the Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division.

An activist, Carol Steiner, called the Brelo acquittal "a very bad precedent for Cleveland" with a decision still to come in Tamir's case.

"Police murder people of color and not have to serve one day in jail," she said.

A sheriff announced this month that the investigation into the police shooting of Tamir in November was nearly complete. Cuyahoga County Sheriff Clifford Pinkney said May 12 that investigators still had a few more witnesses to interview. He said the completed investigation would be turned over to the county prosecutor.

The fatal shooting on Nov. 22 drew national attention when the city released footage from a surveillance camera showing rookie patrolman Timothy Loehmann shooting Tamir within two seconds of a police cruiser stopping near him. Loehmann and his partner, Frank Garmback, were responding to a 911 call about a man waving a gun.

The officers remain on restricted duty. A police union official has said the officers had no way of knowing Tamir, who had an airsoft-type gun that shoots non-lethal plastic pellets, wasn't carrying a real firearm.

An attorney for Tamir's family, Walter Madison, says he can't understand why the investigation has taken so long. He says the only outcome that serves justice is criminal charges.

He and other attorneys have sued the city and the officers in federal court. The city asked that proceedings in the civil case be delayed until after the sheriff's investigation is finished.

At a bench trial, the judge said he couldn’t determine whether Brelo alone fired the fatal shots.

HOW TROUBLED HAS THE CLEVELAND POLICE DEPARTMENT BEEN?

Cleveland’s police have been maligned for years, most recently for the 137-bullet shooting and for the killing of a 12-year-old black boy, Tamir Rice, who had been playing in a park with a realistic-looking pellet gun.

The Department of Justice slammed the police in a report in December, outlining a string of excessive force and civil rights violations. Then-Attorney General Eric Holder announced that a lengthy investigation concluded officers unnecessarily fired their guns, hit suspects in the head with their weapons and used stun guns on handcuffed people.

The city and the Department of Justice are negotiating a consent decree aimed at reforming the police department.

Residents’ discontent with police has gone beyond allegations of excessive force, though. Six years ago, the police department came under criticism following the discovery of 11 women’s bodies in a home where the stench of death hung over a poverty-stricken neighborhood for months. The victims’ families accused police of failing to properly investigate the disappearances because most of the women were poor drug addicts.

WHAT’S NEXT

The Department of Justice, U.S. attorney’s office and the FBI will review the testimony and evidence in Brelo’s case and examine all available legal options, said Vanita Gupta, head of the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division.

An activist, Carol Steiner, called the Brelo acquittal “a very bad precedent for Cleveland” with a decision still to come in Tamir’s case.

“Police murder people of color and not have to serve one day in jail,” she said.

A sheriff announced this month that the investigation into the police shooting of Tamir in November was nearly complete. Cuyahoga County Sheriff Clifford Pinkney said May 12 that investigators still had a few more witnesses to interview. He said the completed investigation would be turned over to the county prosecutor.

The fatal shooting on Nov. 22 drew national attention when the city released footage from a surveillance camera showing rookie patrolman Timothy Loehmann shooting Tamir within two seconds of a police cruiser stopping near him. Loehmann and his partner, Frank Garmback, were responding to a 911 call about a man waving a gun.

The officers remain on restricted duty. A police union official has said the officers had no way of knowing Tamir, who had an airsoft-type gun that shoots non-lethal plastic pellets, wasn’t carrying a real firearm.

An attorney for Tamir’s family, Walter Madison, says he can’t understand why the investigation has taken so long. He says the only outcome that serves justice is criminal charges.

He and other attorneys have sued the city and the officers in federal court. The city asked that proceedings in the civil case be delayed until after the sheriff’s investigation is finished.

CLEVELAND — A white patrolman who fired down through the windshield of a car at the end of a 137-shot barrage that killed the two unarmed black occupants was acquitted Saturday of criminal charges by a judge who said he could not determine the Cleveland officer alone fired the fatal shots.

Michael Brelo, 31, put his head in his hands as the judge issued a verdict followed by angry, but peaceful, protests outside the courthouse. Police blocked furious protesters from going inside while across the city others held a mock funeral with some carrying signs asking, “Will I be next?” Demonstrations lasted into the night and multiple arrests were made, three on felonious assault charges.

The acquittal came at a time of nationwide tension among police and black citizens punctuated by protests over the deaths of black people at the hands of white officers — and following a determination by the U.S. Department of Justice that Cleveland police had a history of using excessive force and violating civil rights.

Before issuing his verdict, Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Judge John P. O’Donnell reflected on the unrest. “In many American places people are angry with, mistrusting 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 O’Donnell said he would not offer up Brelo to an angry public if the evidence did not merit a conviction.

“I will not sacrifice him to a public frustrated by historical mistreatment at the hands of other officers,” O’Donnell said.

Brelo — who fired a total of 49 shots, including 15 while standing on the hood of the vehicle — faced as much as 22 years in prison had the judge convicted him of voluntary manslaughter in the shooting that happened after Timothy Russell’s beat-up Chevy Malibu backfired while speeding by police headquarters.

Russell’s sister, Michelle Russell, said she believed Brelo would ultimately face justice.

“He’s not going to dodge this just because he was acquitted,” she said. “God will have the final say.”

The U.S. Justice Department, U.S. Attorney’s Office and the FBI will review the testimony and evidence and examine all available legal options, said Vanita Gupta, head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division.

After the verdict, sheriff’s deputies stood in front of the courthouse carrying clear shields as protesters chanted “Hands up! Don’t shoot!” — a rallying cry linked to the death of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. One demonstrator bowed his head, hands folded, in front of the phalanx of deputies, praying in silence.

About 200 people walked in a mock funeral procession that had already been planned to mark six months since another deadly shooting that sparked anger in Cleveland: the killing of Tamir Rice, a black 12-year-old carrying a pellet gun who was shot by a white rookie officer.

Protesters carried a black plywood coffin and softly sang, “I’m going up yonder, we’re marching, we’re marching.”

Some carried signs saying “I Can’t Breathe” and “Freddie Gray Lynched,” references to a pair of deadly police encounters: the chokehold death of Eric Garner in New York City and the death of a Baltimore man who suffered a spinal injury while in custody.

Saturday night, protesters temporarily blocked downtown street intersections and chanted anti-police slogans; they marched past sports fans getting out of a Cleveland Indians-Cincinnati Reds game, adding to the congestion.

Police tweeted around 9:30 p.m. that officers had made multiple arrests, including three around East Fourth Street, a downtown dining mecca, where police in riot gear were stationed. Three people were arrested after a restaurant patron was injured when an object was thrown through a window, police said. The charges included aggravated rioting, felonious assault and obstruction of justice.

The unusual timing of the verdict — a Saturday morning on a holiday weekend — was intentional. The county’s top judge said it was meant to prevent traffic issues downtown.

Russell, 43, and Malissa Williams, 30, were each shot more than 20 times at the end of the Nov. 29, 2012, pursuit. Prosecutors argued they were alive until Brelo’s final salvo but medical examiners for both sides testified they could not determine the order in which the deadly shots were fired.

The case hinged largely on the less than 8 seconds — 7.392, to be exact — during which Brelo fired his final 15 rounds.

O’Donnell said he believed Brelo caused some of the fatal wounds — four shots would have killed Russell and seven would have killed Williams — but that other officers must have as well.

O’Donnell said a voluntary manslaughter conviction would require that Brelo’s shots alone were the causes of death or the final wounds tipped the balance between life and death.

O’Donnell spent nearly an hour explaining his decision, even using mannequins marked with gunshot wounds. Brelo could have been convicted of lesser charges, but O’Donnell determined his actions were justified following the chase, which included reports of shots fired from Russell’s car, because officers perceived a threat.

Brelo’s lead attorney, Patrick D’Angelo, said Brelo had been unfairly prosecuted. He called the case a “blood fight.”

“Officer Brelo risked his life on that night,” D’Angelo said.

Cuyahoga County prosecutor Tim McGinty said he respects the judge’s decision. Despite the acquittal, he said the case will prevent police violence in the future.

“This tragic experience has already forced a culture change within the division of police and a needed reexamination of the use of deadly force,” he said.

Thirteen officers fired at the car after a 22-mile high-speed chase that involved 62 marked and unmarked cars and reached 100 mph. Brelo was the only officer charged; prosecutors said he waited until the pair were no longer a threat to fire his final shots.

Authorities never learned why Russell didn’t stop. He had a criminal record including convictions for receiving stolen property and robbery and had been involved in a previous police pursuit. Williams had convictions for drug-related charges and attempted abduction. Both were described as mentally ill, homeless and addicted to drugs. A crack pipe was found in the car.

The shooting helped prompt an investigation by the Department of Justice, which concluded the department had engaged in a pattern and practice of using excessive force and violating civil rights. The city and DOJ are currently negotiating over reforms.

Brelo has been on unpaid leave since he was indicted last May. Police Chief Calvin Williams said it will continue during disciplinary reviews for him and the other 12 officers.

In addition to the charges against Brelo, a grand jury charged five police supervisors with misdemeanor dereliction of duty for failing to control the chase. All five have pleaded not guilty and no trial date has been set.

“Our pursuit of justice for Timothy Russell and Melissa Williams is not over,” McGinty said.

——–

Associated Press writers Andrew Welsh-Huggins and John Coyne contributed to this report.

——–

The Latest in Cleveland: Protesters remember Tamir Rice

By The Associated Press

All Times Eastern

8:45 p.m.

As protests continue, few arrests among the angry but peaceful demonstrators are being reported following a judge’s acquittal of a white police officer in the deaths of two unarmed black suspects.

Cleveland police are tweeting they arrested one male for assault. They say he threw an object through a window injuring a restaurant patron.

The Northeast Ohio Media Group (http://bit.ly/1HCVfl6 ) says three people were arrested near Quicken Loans Arena, and officers showed protesters cans of pepper spray as they approached those being arrested.

Some police are wearing riot gear.

——

7:30 p.m.

About 150 protesters are marching down the middle of downtown Cleveland streets, temporarily blocking intersections as they chant anti-police slogans after a judge acquitted a white police officer of charges in the deaths of two unarmed black suspects.

The protesters passed by large crowds leaving a Cleveland Indians game against the Cincinnati Reds and made downtown vehicle and pedestrian traffic even more congested.

Sports fans are standing at street corners taking cellphone pictures of the protesters as they march behind a large banner that said “Stop murder by police.”

——

5:25 p.m.

Some residents of Cleveland are looking ahead to what could be the next big moment in tensions with police: a decision on whether to charge a white officer in the killing of a 12-year-old black boy.

About 200 people have pulled up stakes after gathering Saturday afternoon at a recreation center Tamir Rice was killed six months ago. They spoke in angry tones but the gathering remained peaceful. Chants of “No justice, no peace” rang out.

Forty-year-old Latonya Goldsby says: “We just want people to know we’re still standing here six months later.”

Authorities are wrapping up an investigation into the shooting of the boy, who was carrying a pellet gun.

Prosecutors can charge the officer, present evidence for an indictment or rule it justified and not pursue criminal charges.

——

4:35 p.m.

A court official says the decision to announce the verdict on a holiday weekend wasn’t made lightly.

Administrative county Judge John J. Russo says in a statement that court administrators and local law enforcement agreed that by announcing the verdict Saturday morning, the potential for downtown traffic issues and any resulting impacts could be lessened.

Russo says the main consideration was to not delay the verdict longer than necessary.

He says that “while the wait was difficult for many, it was especially hard on the parties involved in the case and their families.”

——

4:15 p.m.

Cleveland Police Chief Calvin Williams says that protesters of the patrolman’s acquittal are peacefully exercising their First Amendment Rights.

He has asked at a news briefing that parents keep their children close and make sure they know where they are. He also is asking city residents to be patient in traffic disrupted by protesters

He says the city will not tolerate any violence but is trying to ensure people can exercise their right to protest.

——

3:55 p.m.

Cleveland Cavaliers superstar LeBron James is not commenting directly on the acquittal, but he is expressing hope the city will remain calm.

He tells reporters that “violence is not the answer, and it’s all about trying to find a solution, for good or for bad.”

Saturday afternoon, neighbors are coming out of storefronts and standing on porches to watch dozens of marchers pass by, almost like a parade.

The protesters are marching about 4 miles from the downtown courthouse to a recreation center where 12-year-old Tamir (tah-MEER’) Rice was shot and killed by a police officer six months ago.

Dozens of officers in police cars and on horseback and motorcycles are following the group while rerouting and blocking traffic.

——

3:15 p.m.

Protests have remained peaceful throughout Cleveland after a white patrolman was acquitted of killing two unarmed black motorists.

About 80 protesters are marching through a neighborhood after briefly blocking traffic on a downtown highway. Police are following the protesters on foot and in patrol cars and blocking off traffic.

But so far police aren’t trying to stop the group.

The group formed a line across the highway along Lake Erie and stopped traffic for about 10 minutes Saturday.

——

3 p.m.

Protesters have blocked a highway in Cleveland that runs downtown and along Lake Erie.

They have formed a line along the highway, blocking traffic in both directions.

The group had originally gathered downtown, then marched through the streets and crossed a bridge.

——

2:30 p.m.

About 200 people have gathered for a mock funeral to protest the acquittal of a Cleveland police officer in the deaths of two unarmed suspects.

Dozens of people walked in a peaceful procession carrying a black, plywood coffin and softly singing “I’m going up yonder, we’re marching, we’re marching.”

The protest is being held in a park near the home of the Cuyahoga County prosecutor who lost the case against patrolmen Michael Brelo.

Marchers also protested the lack of progress in the investigation of the killing of a 12-year-old boy carrying a pellet gun by Cleveland police last year.

Some carried signs saying “Will I Be Next?” and “I Can’t Breathe” and “Freddie Gray Lynched.”

——

2:15 p.m.

The prosecutor in the case against a Cleveland police officer who was found not guilty in the deaths of two unarmed suspects says he respects the judge’s decision and urged others to do the same.

Cuyahoga County prosecutor Tim McGinty says the shooting reinforces the need for more training and better supervision in the police department.

He noted at news conference Saturday that the department is understaffed.

The Department of Justice concluded in December that the Cleveland police department had engaged in a pattern of using excessive force and violating people’s civil rights.

The city and DOJ are currently negotiating a reform-minded consent decree that a federal judge will approve and independent monitors will oversee.

——

1:30 p.m.

A Cleveland attorney is asking why patrolman Michael Brelo was the only officer charged in the deaths of two unarmed suspects in a volley of police gunfire.

Paul Cristallo spoke at a news conference Thursday with the family of shooting victim Timothy Russell, who along with Malissa Williams was killed after a police chase in 2012.

Cristallo says even though Brelo was acquitted, one the 13 other officers who fired shots should be charged.

A judge found Brelo not guilty Saturday because it couldn’t be determined which officer fired the fatal shots.

——

12:50 p.m.

The Justice Department plans to “review all available legal options” after a Cleveland police officer’s acquittal on state charges in the deaths of two unarmed suspects.

Officials say they will review the trial testimony and evidence to determine if “additional steps are available and appropriate” in the federal judicial system.

The department says the review is separate from its efforts to resolve a pattern of civil rights violations at the Cleveland police department. A report in December outlined a string of examples of excessive force, including officers who unnecessarily fired guns, hit suspects in the head with weapons, and punched and used Tasers on people already handcuffed.

Judge John P. O’Donnell found Officer Michael Brelo not guilty on all charges Saturday after concluding that the patrolman was justified in using lethal force. O’Donnell also said it could not be determined who fired the fatal shots.

——

12:15 p.m.

The lead attorney for the Cleveland police officer who was found not guilty of manslaughter in the deaths of two unarmed suspects says the prosecution spared no expense and “were ruthless.”

Patrick D’Angelo calls the case a “tragedy” that was brought about by the actions of the two people who were killed in a 137-shot barrage of police gunfire.

He says 31-year-old officer Michael Brelo risked his life the night Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams led officers on a long police chase through the city’s streets.

The head of the city’s police union says Brelo was held accountable through the indictment, trial and ultimate acquittal. Steve Loomis of Cleveland Patrolmen’s Association says he hopes the community respects the judge and the process.

——

11:50 a.m.

At least 30 protesters have gathered at the Cleveland courthouse where a patrolman was acquitted in the deaths of two unarmed suspects who were killed in a 137-shot barrage of police gunfire.

About an equal number of sheriff’s deputies bearing clear shields stood in front of the courthouse shortly after the verdict as the demonstrators chanted “hands up, don’t shoot.”

One man standing in front of the phalanx of deputies bowed his head with hands folded, praying in silence.

The deputies have moved inside the entrance of the justice center, and the plaza in front of the building has been cordoned off.

Officer Michael Brelo faced as many as 22 years in prison had the judge convicted him on two counts of voluntary manslaughter.

——

11 a.m.

A Cleveland officer has been found not guilty in the shooting deaths of two unarmed suspects in a 137-shot barrage of police gunfire after a high-speed chase.

The judge’s verdict Saturday for 31-year-old Michael Brelo (BREE’-loh) comes after a four-week bench trial on two counts of voluntary manslaughter in the deaths of Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams on Nov. 29, 2012.

Thirteen officers fired at the suspects’ car that night in a school parking lot. Yet only Brelo was charged criminally.

Prosecutors said he waited until the vehicle had stopped and the occupants were no longer a threat to step onto the hood and fire 15 rounds into the windshield.

Brelo could have faced 22 years in prison if convicted on both counts.

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