Cleveland Officer Not Guilty In Fatal Shooting Of Unarmed Suspects
A judge handed down a verdict of not guilty on two counts of voluntary manslaughter against a Cleveland officer charged in the 2012 deaths of Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams — unarmed suspects who were caught in a 137-shot hail of police gunfire following a high-speed chase.
Citing testimony from a doctors for the prosecution and defense, Judge John P. O'Donnell said although he believed that Officer Michael Brelo had delivered a fatal shot to both Russell and Williams, it was impossible to determine beyond a reasonable doubt that either suspect would have survived if not for Brelo's shots.
He also determined that Brelo's use of force was constitutionally reasonable given that he and other officers perceived that Russell and Williams posed a threat.
"It is Brelo's perception of a threat that matters," O'Donnell said.
Brelo listened to the lengthy verdict without visible emotion, although he held his head in his hand as the actual verdict neared.
Before announcing the verdict, O'Donnell said that anger with the police "will not be expiated by a verdict in a single criminal case." He assured the court that "Brelo's badge" would not bear on the decision.
Although 13 officers discharged their weapons during the incident, only Brelo, 31 was charged with voluntary manslaughter because "prosecutors said he waited until the car had stopped and the occupants were no longer a threat to fire 15 rounds down into the windshield while standing on its hood."
In total, Brelo fired 49 of the 137 shots, prosecutors said. Russell was hit 23 times; Williams was shot 24 times.
"Timothy Russell made some bad decisions that night, but it should not be a death sentence," assistant county prosecutor Sherrie Royster told the judge earlier, arguing that Brelo acted unreasonably.
In December, the U.S. Department of Justice concluded that the Brelo and the other officers had "found a pattern of excessive force by Cleveland police. The 18-month federal civil rights investigation also found police supervisors failed to document and investigate claims of brutality," according to NPR's Carrie Johnson.
The Associated Press notes that during the trial Brelo's attorneys "argued and testimony showed that other officers fired during the final barrage and that prosecutors couldn't prove in what order the fatal shots were fired."
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