Cleveland Officer Michael Brelo was acquitted of voluntary manslaughter and felonious assault
He climbed atop a car and fired into the windshield 15 times after a 22-mile police chase
How can a police officer fire 15 shots into a car with two unarmed people inside and then get acquitted after their deaths?
That’s exactly what happened when a judge announced Saturday that Cleveland police Officer Michael Brelo was not guilty of voluntary manslaughter and felonious assault in the 2012 deaths of Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams.
After Russell led police on a 22-mile chase, about a dozen officers fired 137 bullets into his car. None of the other officers was charged with manslaughter.
The reaction to Brelo’s acquittal has been loud but relatively peaceful – at least compared to the violence that wracked Ferguson, Missouri, last November when Officer Darren Wilson was not indicted for the death of unarmed black teen Michael Brown.
To understand how we got here – and what’s next for Cleveland – here’s what you need to know:
What led up to the shooting?
It started the night of November 29, 2012, when a couple in a car sped away from an undercover officer.
Their engine backfired, sputtering and producing a loud bang in the tailpipe. Prosecutors said officers mistook the noise for gunshots, and a high-speed chase ensued.
Investigators said as many as 62 police cars joined the pursuit at speeds of up to 100 miles per hour through the streets of Cleveland.
After a 22-mile chase, Russell rammed a police car in a middle school parking lot, police said.
That’s when the bullets started flying.
An investigation revealed 13 police officers fired more than more than 100 times in eight seconds. But only one officer, Michael Brelo, was charged with two counts of voluntarily manslaughter.
What exactly did Brelo do?
The 31-year-old officer got out of his police car, climbed atop the hood of Russell’s car and “fired at least 15 shots … downward through the windshield into the victims at close range as he stood on the hood of Mr. Russell’s car,” Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Timothy McGlinty said.
Brelo told investigators he thought he and his partner were in danger, believing the couple in the car were shooting.
“I’ve never been so afraid in my life,” the former Marine told investigators. “I thought my partner and I would be shot and that we were going to be killed, at which point I drew my weapon and I shot through the windshield at the suspects.”
Why did the judge decide to acquit?
The decision was reached not by a jury, but by Cuyahoga County Judge John P. O’Donnell alone. He gave several reasons for his verdict:
- The officers’ first round of gunfire was permissible because they had reason to believe they and the public were at risk.
- Brelo’s second round was permissible because a reasonable police officer could decide that, even after the 100 shots, the threat might not have been over in part because the pair might still have been moving.
- While evidence showed Brelo’s gunfire caused at least one wound each to Russell and Williams that would have killed either of them, the pair also suffered other lethal wounds, probably from other officers’ guns.
- Since evidence doesn’t prove Brelo’s shots were the ones that killed the pair, he can’t be found guilty of voluntary manslaughter.
- Brelo is also not guilty of the lesser charge of felonious assault because it wasn’t necessarily clear the threat was over.
What happened after the verdict?
Outside the courthouse, a chorus of protesters chanted a now common refrain: “No justice, no peace.” Some wore shirts that read, “Black lives matter.”
While most of the protesters were peaceful, at least 71 people were arrested over the weekend for offenses including felonious assault, aggravated rioting, unlawful congregation and failure to disperse, Cleveland Police Chief Calvin Williams said.
Dozens of people blocked a Cleveland highway in protest.
But both the mayor and Ohio’s governor praised the majority of protesters who demonstrated peacefully.
“They should be so proud of themselves, and we should look at Cleveland as a model,” Ohio Gov. John Kasich told ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday.
What did the families say?
“All I know is that I don’t trust police no more. No police. None,” Malissa Williams’ brother Alfredo Williams said. “I can’t recover from this. …This verdict isn’t real. This verdict is fake.”
Relatives of Russell and Williams had harsh words for police and the court system.
“We were expecting him to be convicted of at least one of the charges,” Jackie Russell, sister-in-law of Timothy Russell, told CNN on Saturday. “We feel as though basically the judge gave him a pat on the back and said good job for shooting those people.”
Is there a curfew in Cleveland?
No. Unlike Ferguson and Baltimore, where violence has resulted in curfews, Cleveland’s mayor said residents and visitors should carry on normally without worrying about the protests.
“If they cross the line, we will deal with them accordingly, Mayor Frank Jackson said.
“Citizens should not be concerned about that, and they should come downtown and enjoy themselves.”
Does Cleveland have a history of excessive force?
The Department of Justice says yes. Federal investigators said police in Cleveland have been using unnecessary and unreasonable force at a “significant rate,” employing “dangerous tactics” that put the community at risk, according to a DOJ report released last year.
The nearly two-year Justice Department investigation found that Cleveland police use guns, Tasers, pepper spray and their fists excessively, unnecessarily or in retaliation.
Officers also have used excessive force on those “who are mentally ill or in crisis,” the Justice Department said.
Why did the couple speed away?
Russell and Williams were both homeless with a history of mental illness and drug use, according to Ohio’s Bureau of Criminal Investigations. Witnesses said they were most likely looking to buy drugs that night. A police officer ran a license plate check of the 1979 Chevy Malibu that Russell was driving. He had gotten it from a relative, and the check came back clean.
Still, the officer tried to pull him over for a turn signal violation. Russell then sped away.
What’s next for the pair’s families?
The city settled with both families, and each will receive more than $865,000, the Cleveland Plain-Dealer reported last year. The total settlement amount is $1.5 million for each family, with lawyers receiving 40% of the money. Cleveland said it settled to avoid a drawn-out legal case, but “the settlement is not an acknowledgment of liability.”
What about Tamir Rice?
Officer Brelo’s acquittal isn’t the only police-involved incident stirring unrest in the city. Protesters are also demanding justice after the death of Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old boy who was shot and killed by Cleveland police.
Tamir was holding a pellet gun when he was killed.
About 200 people carried a coffin from a park to the home of prosecutor Timothy McGinty, CNN affiliate WEWS said.
No charges have been filed in that killing, though Cuyahoga County Sheriff Clifford Pinkney recently said the investigation is almost finished.
What’s next for Cleveland?
The city and the Department of Justice will announce how they are moving forward with changes to Cleveland’s police force after last year’s scathing DOJ report, law enforcement officials said.
In December, when then-Attorney General Eric Holder announced the report, the city’s mayor and police chief said they agreed that recommend changes should be implemented. The agreement required the city to create a reform plan.
CNN’s Jason Hanna, Ralph Ellis, Greg Botelho, Evan Perez, Martin Savidge, Catherine E. Shoichet and Ben Brumfield contributed to this report.