A white Cleveland patrolman who fired down through the windshield of a suspect’s car at the end of a 137-shot barrage by police that left the two unarmed black occupants dead was acquitted on Saturday of criminal charges by a judge who said he could not determine the officer alone fired the fatal shots.
Michael Brelo, 31, put his head in hands as the judge issued a verdict that prompted an angry response outside the courthouse.
The acquittal came at a time of nationwide tension among police and black citizens punctuated by protests over deaths of black suspects at the hands of white officers — and following a determination by the U.S. Department of Justice that city 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 noted the recent unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore over the deaths of black suspects but said he would not “sacrifice” Brelo to an angry public if the evidence did not merit a conviction.
“Guilty or not guilty, the verdict should be no cause for a civilized society to celebrate or riot,” he said.
Brelo — who fired a total of 49 shots, including 15 down through the windshield while standing on the hood of the suspects’ vehicle — faced as many as 22 years in prison had the judge convicted him on two counts of voluntary manslaughter for his role in the end of a Nov. 29, 2012 chase that began after Timothy Russell’s car backfired as he sped past Cleveland police headquarters. Police officers and bystanders thought someone inside the vehicle had fired a gun.
His sister, Michelle Russell, said she believed Brelo would ultimately face justice, despite the judge’s decision.
The officers who surrounded the car were angry that the pair didn’t pull over and didn’t give them a chance to surrender, she said.
Michelle Russell urged protesters to be peaceful and work for real solutions.
“We need to organize and figure out a way to stop this from happening again,” she said.
Dozens of people, a mix of blacks and whites, walked peacefully in a mock funeral procession in a park near where the country prosecutor lives. Protesters carried a black, plywood coffin and softly sang a spiritual.
Some carried signs saying “I Can’t Breathe” and “Freddie Gray Lynched,” references to a pair of police-involved deaths: 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.
Several Cleveland police officers followed the march on foot and on horses.
Community and city leaders braced for the possibility of unrest in response to the verdict, which came as investigators work toward making a decision on whether charges will be filed in the death of a black 12-year-old boy carrying a pellet gun who was shot by a white rookie officer late last year in a Cleveland park.
The U.S. Justice Department, U.S. Attorney’s Office and the FBI will begin reviewing the testimony and evidence and review all available legal options, said Vanita Gupta, head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division.
After the verdict, about 30 sheriff’s deputies stood in front of the courthouse bearing clear shields as protesters with bullhorns chanted. The deputies then moved inside the entrance of the justice center, and the plaza in front of the building was soon cordoned off.
Report by Associated Press.