In opening his remarks prior to reading the verdict in the case, Judge John P. O’Donnell reminded the court and the city of Cleveland, “The verdict should be no cause for a civilized society to celebrate or riot.” That plaintive plea for peace will almost certainly get tested in the aftermath of the trial of Michael Brelo, a Cleveland police officer accused of two homicides in a shooting that left two unarmed people dead in a deadly cascade of police errors. O’Donnell issued a not-guilty verdict on all counts, which will undoubtedly have many in Cleveland angry, and threatens to inflame racial tensions in the US all over again:
After a nearly hour-long explanation, including reiterating all wounds to Malissa Williams and Timothy Russell, Judge John O’Donnell found Officer Michael Brelo not guilty of voluntary manslaughter in their deaths.
Brelo was also found not guilty of felonious assault in the 2012 deadly police chase and shooting. …
On Nov. 29, 2012, Cleveland Police Officer Vasile Nan thought he heard a gunshot while he was outside of his cruiser on St. Clair Avenue near the Cuyahoga County Justice Center, and pursued a blue car. The resulting police chase lasted 22 minutes, and involved more than 60 police cars and more than a hundred officers. It stretched through downtown Cleveland, into the Tremont neighborhood and at high speeds on Interstate 90 before ending at Heritage Middle School in East Cleveland.
In the school parking lot, 13 Cleveland officers fired a total of 137 shots at Russell’s 1979 Chevrolet Malibu. Investigators from the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation said 49 of those shots came from Officer Brelo’s Glock 17. His final 15 shots were fired from the hood of the suspect’s car.
According to the Cuyahoga County Medical Examiner’s Office, Russell suffered 23 gunshot wounds and his passenger, Williams, was shot 24 times.
Brelo was the only officer charged with homicide. Prosecutors alleged that Brelo delivered the fatal shots in the parking lot, climbing up on the hood of the car and firing a full magazine at unarmed and non-threatening suspects. The defense argued that the prosecutors could not prove that Brelo’s shots were the fatal hits, and that they failed to prove that Brelo didn’t have reasonable fear for his life in that final 2.6 seconds. To bolster that point, they note that police communications erroneously informed officers during the chase that the suspect had brandished a gun, and Russell rammed one of the police cars in the parking lot after getting trapped. The incident took place at night, so visibility was another potential mitigating issue.
Brelo, who is white, and his team chose to have O’Donnell deliver a bench verdict rather than go with a jury trial. They were worried that the deaths of two unarmed African Americans at the hands of police in a case of mistaken notions of attack would result in an emotional desire to punish someone. Instead, the defense hoped to win on strict interpretation of statutory law. It appears they chose wisely.
That may turn into a big problem for the city of Cleveland, however. Even with all of the potentially mitigating circumstances, two people whose only crimes were to drive a poorly tuned car and attempt to get away from police after a backfire are still dead, and at least at the moment no one’s been held seriously accountable for it. Police fired 137 shots into a car where no one had weapons. Ohio’s Attorney General, Republican Mike DeWine, found that the case showed “a systematic failure in the Cleveland police department.” The lack of jury involvement in a broad not-guilty verdict will only make the outrage grow in Cleveland.
The best outcome would be that peace will prevail in the aftermath of this trial, but also that sanity will prevail, too. When police fire 137 rounds into a car without bothering to firmly establish a threat first, the relative ethnicities matter less than the threat to liberty it means to all. When there are no consequences for that act, it makes that threat even more potent. That is something that should concern all Americans.