Saturday, May 23, 2015

Cleveland Police Officer Acquitted In 137-Shot Barrage That Killed 2 Unarmed Black People

Car Backfires: Barage Of 137 Bullets Kill Unarmed Black Occupants
Killer Cop Michael Brelo Acquitted

Alan: Killer cop, Michael Brelo may not have "knowingly caused the deaths of Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams.” But American culture knowingly trains its cops to be trigger happy and to kill on slight provocation. Slight provocation has a much lower threshold for black people than white.

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Cleveland officer acquitted in killing of unarmed pair amid 137-shot barrage

What you need to know about the Brelo verdict(2:15)
A decision is reached in the 2012 shooting of two unarmed individuals in their car after a judge rules on the guilt or innocence of Cleveland police officer Michael Brelo. (McKenna Ewen/The Washington Post)

 May 23

A Cleveland police officer was acquitted today for his role in the 2012 fatal shooting of two unarmed people in a car after officers mistook the sound of the car backfiring as gunshots.
After a four-week trial, a judge found officer Michael Brelo, 31, not guilty of two counts of felony voluntary manslaughter in the deaths of Timothy Russell, 43, and Malissa Williams, 30. Russell and Williams were killed Nov. 29, 2012, after they led 62 police vehicles on a chase across Cleveland.
“The state did not prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant Michael Brelo knowingly caused the deaths of Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams,” said Judge John P. O’Donnell in his ruling, “because the essential element of causation was not proved for both counts.”
Prosecutions of officers for the use of deadly force are rare given there have been thousands of fatal police shootings in the past decade. When criminal charges have been pursued, officers have most often been acquitted or cleared, according to a recent analysis by The Washington Post in conjunction with criminologist Philip M. Stinson and researchers at Bowling Green University.
Since 2005, 54 officers have been charged criminally for shooting and killing someone in the line of duty, the analysis found. Of the 35 cases that had been resolved, 21 officers were acquitted or saw their charges dropped, 11 cases resulted in convictions, and in three cases the officers entered guilty pleas and were placed on probation. Brelo is the second officer in Ohio to face charges in a decade. The other officer also was acquitted.
An animated chronology of events from the end of the police chase to the subsequent shooting. (Ohio Attorney General)
Brelo, a seven-year veteran, is the first of six Cleveland officers to be prosecuted in the 2012 fatal shooting of Russell and Williams. Five police supervisors — none of whom fired shots — also each face misdemeanor counts for “dereliction of duty.” No trial dates have been set.
List Of Killings By Law Enforcement Officers In The United States, November 2012
When Russell’s Chevy Malibu finally came to a stop in East Cleveland, 13 officers opened fire, shooting at least 137 rounds into the vehicle. Brelo, prosecutors said, was the only one who continued to shoot after the threat was over. He climbed onto the hood of the Malibu and shot 15 rounds into the windshield, striking Russell, who was driving, and Williams, who was in the passenger seat.
The verdict in the Brelo case comes at a time of growing national scrutiny of the use of force by law enforcement against people, especially minorities. Brelo is white and the two victims were black.
Another Cleveland case that has grabbed nationwide attention is the shooting by police of 12-year-old Tamir Rice. On Nov. 22, a white police officer shot and killed Rice, who was black, while he was playing with a toy gun in a park near his home. County investigators recently announced they are finalizing their investigation and will refer their findings to prosecutors. A spokesman for prosecutors said they will present the evidence to a grand jury.

APTOPIX Cleveland Police Shooting Michael Brelo weeps as he hears the verdict in his trial Saturday, May 23, 2015, 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.
Tony Dejak/Associated Press

Michael Brelo weeps as he hears the verdict in his trial Saturday, May 23, 2015, 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.
In recent weeks, other high-profile cases involving the deaths of people at the hands of police have emerged. Six Baltimore officers were indicted May 1 for the murder of Freddie Gray, a black man who died after a spinal injury following an arrest. And, on April 7, South Carolina authorities charged Michael Slager, a white officer, with murder for fatally shooting a black man as he fled a traffic stop.
The fatal shooting in 2012 of Russell and Williams in East Cleveland was the outcome of a chain of events that began shortly before 10:30 p.m. when an officer in an unmarked car activated his windshield strobe lights and attempted to stop the 1979 Chevy Malibu for a turn-signal violation. The blue Malibu, driven by Russell, stopped but drove off as the officer got out of his car.
About five minutes later, the Malibu that Russell was driving backfired as it drove past police headquarters. Officers mistook the sound for gunfire and began to pursue it. A forensic mechanic testified in court that a hole in the muffler indicated the car had a history of backfiring.
Officer Michael Brelo answers questions about the shooting. (Ohio Attorney General)
“Old Chevy, on St. Clair just popped a round,” one officer radioed at 10:33 p.m. according to a transcript of radio traffic later introduced as evidence at trial. The radio transmission set off what became a 20-mile chase involving more than one-third of the 276 officers on duty with the Cleveland Police Department that night, according to prosecutors.
During the chase, some officers reported that someone was shooting at them from the window of the Malibu. At least one officer reported that was not the case and at 10:47 p.m. radioed: “Passenger just put his hands out asking us to stop. He does not have a gun. He has black gloves on,” the officer said, according to the transcript.
“There’s a red pop can in his hand.”
That didn’t stop the pursuit. Seconds later, the Malibu dead-ended into a middle school parking lot and was rammed by an officer’s car. The car spun to a halt as officers began to open fire.
Brelo fired his Glock 17 from the driver’s seat of his car, reloaded and emptied a second 17-round magazine, according to the investigation. He exited his patrol car, according to testimony, to get to a safer position behind another squad car, according to court documents.
A state investigator who interviewed Brelo following the incident testified that Brelo said that he drew on his Marine training to “go to an elevated position and push through the target.”
Brelo stepped onto the hood of the Malibu, where he fired 15 shots into the windshield, prosecutors said.
Brelo had told state investigators that he did not recall getting on the hood of the car. At trial, a state forensic scientist testified that he matched photos of footprints on the Malibu to impressions made of Brelo’s boots.
When the firing ended, Brelo placed the Malibu that was still running in park and removed the keys as another officer searched the victims for a pulse and a gun. Neither was found.
The entire shooting was over in 17.8 seconds. Russell, the driver, was shot 23 times; Williams, 24. Prosecutors said that evidence showed Brelo fired 49 times.
O’Donnell spent nearly 50 minutes explaining his decision, which was contained in a 35-page opinion. He walked through the conflicting forensic testimony about the case, using two mannequins in the courtroom to show the trajectory and location of gunshot wounds to the victims. Ultimately, the judge said multiple officers fired shots that could have been fatal to Williams and Russell.
Brelo requested a trial by judge instead of a jury. He did not testify.
The case hinged on whether the fatal shots were fired by Brelo or one of the other 12 officers. The trial also focused on whether Brelo’s behavior was “reasonable” under the circumstances.
In all, the prosecution put on 45 witnesses and the defense six. The judge heard from forensic pathologists, siblings of the victims, ballistics experts, a forensic mechanic, use-of-force experts and police officers.
“We are elated,” said Patrick D’Angelo, one of Brelo’s attorneys, who declared that the prosecutor was a bully. “This has been a bloodfight, tooth and nail . . . We stood toe to toe with an oppressive government trying to . . . put away a law abiding citizen.”
Steve Loomis, who heads the Cleveland Patrolman’s Union, slammed the prosecution, declaring that it had both overcharged and used tactics that unfairly targeted his officers - many of whom did not cooperate with the investigation.
“The politics of this is just incredible,” Loomis said. “The facts weren’t there but they pressed on anyway. He should be ashamed of himself.”
Brelo had been suspended without pay.
Both Williams and Russell were homeless, mentally ill and addicted to drugs, family and officials said. Police later determined the pair were under the influence of drugs the night they were killed.
Williams and Russell met in a nursing home where Russell had been undergoing rehabilitation after a car accident in which he “tried to outrun a police car,” his sister Michelle Russell said in court.
Russell, of Maple Heights, had struggled with drugs and had been diagnosed as bipolar, she testified. He was the father to an 18-year-old and a self-employed bathtub refinisher, a trade he learned after being incarcerated.
“He was really trying to get his life together,” his sister testified of Russell and his struggle with drugs. “He would walk past the church, often ask the church members to pray for him that he could overcome, you know, that situation because he wanted to overcome that.”
Williams, of Garfield Heights, was a sweet girl, said her uncle, Walter Jackson Sr. He said he and his mother helped raise Williams after her mother abandoned her as a child. As she grew older she got involved with drugs and was diagnosed with schizophrenia, Jackson said.
Eventually, after repeated bouts with the law, she was imprisoned at a women’s correctional facility in Ohio alongside her mother, he said.
Jackson called his niece’s killing a “black eye” for the city. “Everybody was acting like [expletive deleted] cowboys that night,” he said.
It’s been nearly two years since an officer has been convicted of shooting and killing someone in the line of duty, according to The Post analysis. In September 2013, Phoenix police officer Richard Chrisman was found guilty of felony aggravated assault by a jury and also pleaded guilty to felony manslaughter.
Chrisman was one of the 54 on-duty police officers charged since 2005 in a fatal shooting. The analysis found that among the 11 officers convicted nationwide, all but one victim was unarmed.
Every officer who was convicted was white. All but three of their 12 victims were black.
Like Brelo, none of those officers were convicted of murder charges. Instead they were convicted of other felony charges, including aggravated assault, manslaughter or reckless homicide.
In Ohio, Brelo is one of only two who have faced criminal charges since 2005 for shooting and killing a person while on duty. In both cases, the officers were white and the victims were black.
In 2008, Lima Police officer Joseph Chavalia was acquitted on misdemeanor negligent homicide and negligent assault charges. He shot and killed an unarmed 26-year-old mother during a drug raid as she held her infant son.
Wesley Lowery contributed from Cleveland to this report.

Kimbriell Kelly is a reporter on the Investigative Unit team The Washington Post.

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