A Cleveland judge found police officer Michael Brelo not guilty on all charges in connection with the November 2012 shooting deaths of two unarmed black suspects. The charged atmosphere ahead of the highly anticipated verdict had prompted authorities to put the National Guard on standby in the event of civil unrest similar to what unfolded after the police-involved deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, last year and Freddie Gray in Baltimore this year.
“Guessing and being convinced beyond a reasonable doubt are not compatible,” Cuyahoga Common Pleas Judge John P. O’Donnell said while reading his verdict Saturday. “Guilty or not guilty should not be cause for a civilized society to celebrate or riot.”
O’Donnell said Brelo was not guilty on two charges of voluntary manslaughter and on a lesser charge of felonious assault.
Brelo, 31, had faced the charges in connection with the Nov. 29, 2012, police chase and shooting that left Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams dead. Thirteen officers were involved in the shooting, but only Brelo was charged. Prosecutors argued during Brelo’s trial that he was the only one to jump on the hood of Russell’s car to fire straight down at the pair.
The high-speed chase began when Russell ignored a plainclothes officer’s attempt to pull him over for a turn-signal violation, according to investigators. More than 100 rounds were shot at the 1979 Chevrolet Malibu by police officers, and Russell, 43, and Williams, 30, were each struck more than 20 times. Brelo’s final 15 shots were fired from the hood of Russell’s car after the chase had already ended, resulting in him being criminally charged.
Prosecutors argued Brelo was unjustified in shooting his last rounds because the suspects were no longer a threat to the officers’ lives, but Brelo’s defense team countered by saying the threat remained until the officer removed the keys from Russell’s car. Neither Russell nor Williams were found to be armed by investigators.
An Iraq War veteran, Brelo would have faced a maximum of 25 years in state prison had he been convicted. The officer’s defense team opted to have a judge decide the charges rather than a jury.
Cleveland law-enforcement officials and politicians have said the city has been preparing for months in the event protesters prove to be unsatisfied with the judge’s decision and decide to stage mass rallies. The case has received national attention amid increased scrutiny of police use of lethal force, and it constituted one of many complaints against the city’s police department investigated by the U.S. Justice Department.