The last thing the city of Cleveland wants is the kind of violence, looting and arson that has unfolded in Baltimore and Ferguson, Missouri, in recent months. A local judge is expected to hand down the verdict in the trial of police officer Michael Brelo at some point in the next few weeks, and city officials say they are hoping for the best.
Brelo, 31, stood trial last month in a case that has been watched nationally as officers around the country have come under an increasing amount of scrutiny for their use of lethal force. Brelo faces two counts of voluntary manslaughter and up to 25 years in prison after firing 49 bullets at two unarmed black suspects at the end of a high-speed chase in 2012. Ahead of the verdict, politicians and law enforcement leaders in Cleveland say preparations have been underway for months in the event that residents in the city of 390,000 are not satisfied with the judge’s decision and stage large protests.
Brelo's alleged use of excessive force was part of a litany of complaints levied against the city’s police force by the U.S. Department of Justice, which said last December the force engaged in a pattern of abuse. The city has agreed to be monitored as it works with federal officials to reform its practices. A Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court official this week said a verdict in the Brelo case was not expected before Friday.
Community leaders have urged officials to be especially transparent about how the verdict was reached given the high-profile shooting and the public’s general lack of understanding about the legal process. “The more information the public can digest, the less potential for anger and violence,” said Ron Martinelli, a California-based forensic criminologist who has consulted on the Brelo case as a defense expert.
A small number of residents protested daily during the Brelo trial that began in April 5, according to local media reports. Most of them vowed more protests if the officer, a Marine and Iraq War veteran who is accused of manslaughter in the deaths of Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams, was found not guilty.
Nicole Lee, a Washington, D.C.-based human rights attorney who coordinated a protester bail fund during the Baltimore unrest last month, said members of the national legal aid group, the Black Movement Law Project, have made preparations to assist any Cleveland protesters who are arrested after the verdict is announced.
Wiltrina Middleton, a 35-year-old Cleveland activist, said the verdict would not have any bearing on whether local demonstrators continue to protest. “Mayhem has already brought forth its wrath when lives were stolen," she said in a phone interview. "There’s always a call for peace. But there’s never a dialogue to speak to the violence that’s brought against people by the hands of the police." She said her protest group, Cleveland Action, which was founded after the Cleveland police shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice last November, has been peaceful.
"We don’t need a prompting from city officials to be peaceful. Our focus is to expose injustices and to hold those who are complicit in it accountable,” Middleton said.
Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson has stated that he supports peaceful protests, whichever way the Brelo verdict goes. “We’re not saying don’t protest,” city spokesman Dan Williams said in a phone interview on Wednesday. “That’s not the message that we want them to understand. We just don’t want harm to people or property.”
A spokesman for the Cuyahoga County prosecutor on Thursday said transparency has been a virtue in how information was released in the case. Timothy McGinty, the prosecutor, announced Brelo’s indictment with an explanation of what evidence the grand jurors considered during the closed proceedings.
Judge John O’Donnell’s decision to grant wall-to-wall streaming video coverage of the trial, which McGinty’s office did not oppose, helped communicate transparency, said Joseph Frolik, a spokesman for the prosecutor's office. “Anybody who wanted to follow the trial had ample opportunity to follow along." The prosecutor’s office declined to comment on the content of the Brelo case before O’Donnell issues a verdict.
The way MccGinty has handled the flow of public information contrasts with how other prosecutors have handled high-profile cases elsewhere. Following the death of Eric Garner, the 43-year-old Staten Island, N.Y., resident who died last July in a chokehold by a New York City police officer, a grand jury declined to indict Officer Daniel Pantaleo. In the aftermath, prosecutors cited a state law barring them from releasing information about the grand jury decision.
In Ferguson, Missouri, St. Louis County prosecutor Bob McCollough waited until after a grand jury declined to indict Officer Darren Wilson in the fatal shooting of Michael Brown before his office released a trove of witness testimony and evidence to the public. McCollough was criticized for the dismissive tone and posture he took in releasing the information, angering protestors who had sought transparency after the shooting last August. Officials' seeming lack of initiative in Ferguson resulted in widespread misinformation, said Martinelli, the forensics expert.
In Cleveland, community mistrust of police has been evidenced by numerous complaints of excessive force. The Justice Department investigation, launched in March 2013, looked at the use of force practices of the Cleveland Division of Police following a number of high-profile use-of-force incidents, including the one involving Brelo. Investigators found evidence that Cleveland police officers engaged in a practice of unreasonable and unnecessary force in violation of the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution, including shootings, strikes to the head with impact weapons, use of Tasers and closed fists. The report caused a rift between city officials and the Cleveland police union, which complained investigators cherry-picked the worst allegations for their report.
Brelo has been open with investigators about the Nov. 29, 2012 shooting. It began with a car chase after an officer mistakenly radioed to others that Russell, 43, fired a gun at police near Cleveland's downtown courthouse. Russell sped off with his passenger, 30-year-old Williams, and drew more than 100 Cleveland officers to the pursuit. Both Russell and Williams had prior convictions and struggled with mental illness and drug addiction.
After a nearly 20-mile chase, Russell’s 1979 Chevrolet Malibu was surrounded in an East Cleveland school parking lot, according to an Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation report. Believing the suspects were armed, 13 officers fired their weapons 137 times at Russell’s Malibu. Prosecutors said Brelo fired 49 of the bullets and continued to fire after a cease fire order was given, leaping onto the hood of the Malibu to fire 15 fatal shots through the windshield.
In interviews with state investigators, Brelo said he feared intensely for his life and the lives of the other officers and that he didn’t remember leaping onto the hood of Russell’s car. A grand jury didn’t agree that fear or imminent threat to officers or the public justified the final 15 shots, said Timothy McGinty, the Cuyahoga County prosecutor, who indicted Brelo on two counts of voluntary manslaughter last May.
In the state of Ohio, voluntary manslaughter is a first-degree felony that carries sentence of up to 25 years in prison. Prosecutors must prove that Brelo, “while under the influence of sudden passion or in a sudden fit of rage,” knowingly used deadly force to kill.
Darren Toms, the spokesperson for the Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court, said Thursday that O’Donnell’s ruling in the case could be delayed by his lengthy docket of criminal and civil cases. Toms said the judge will write a brief that would be made available to the public “after it is read in open court.” He did not indicate how soon the decision was expected.