CLEVELAND — A white Cleveland patrolman who fired down through the windshield of a suspect’s car at the end of a 137-shot barrage that left the two unarmed black occupants dead was acquitted 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 angry, but peaceful, protests: Outside the courthouse protesters chanted “Hands up! Don’t Shoot!” while across the city others held a mock funeral with some carrying signs saying, “Will I be next?”
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 Cleveland 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 chase that began after Timothy Russell’s beat-up Chevy Malibu backfired.
His sister, Michelle Russell, said she believed Brelo would ultimately face justice, despite the judge’s decision.
“He’s not going to dodge this just because he was acquitted,” she said. “God will have the final say.”
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 walked in a mock funeral procession in a park near where the country prosecutor lives. Protesters carried a black, plywood coffin and softly sang “I’m going up yonder, we’re marching, we’re marching.”
The crowd was a mix of blacks and whites walking peacefully in the park and along city streets as neighbors looked on.
Several Cleveland police officers followed the march on foot and on horses.
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.
Community and city leaders braced for the possibility of unrest in response to the verdict, which came as investigators work toward 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.
One activist, Carol Steiner, said the verdict is “a very bad precedent for Cleveland” with a decision still to come in the death of the 12-year-old, Tamir Rice. “Police murder people of color and not have to serve one day in jail.”
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.
“We will continue our assessment, review all available legal options, and will collaboratively determine what, if any, additional steps are available and appropriate given the requirements and limitations of the applicable laws in the federal judicial system,” said the joint statement.
After the verdict, about 30 sheriff’s deputies stood in front of the courthouse bearing clear shields as protesters with bullhorns chanted. One demonstrator bowed his head with hands folded in front of the phalanx of deputies, praying in silence.
O’Donnell spent nearly an hour summing up his conclusion, an involved explanation that included mannequins marked with the gunshot wounds that the two motorists suffered on Nov. 29, 2012.
Brelo could have been convicted of lesser charges of felonious assault, but O’Donnell determined his actions were justified in shooting, which included reports of shots being fired from Russell’s car, because they perceived a threat.
Brelo’s lead attorney, Patrick D’Angelo, told reporters after the verdict his team was “humbled by the verdict but not emboldened by it.”
“Officer Brelo risked his life on that night,” D’Angelo said, only to be attacked by prosecutors in a case he called a “blood fight.”
“I’ve never in my 37 years witnessed such a vicious and unprofessional prosecution of a police officer,” he said.
Cuyahoga County prosecutor Tim McGinty said he respects the judge’s decision and urged others to do so, as well.
Zach Reed, a councilman who represents a black area of southeast Cleveland, said he thought Brelo should have been guilty of felonious assault. “We may not agree with the decision but we will not pillage, loot and burn the city as a result of this verdict,” he said.
Thirteen officers fired at the car with Russell and Malissa Williams inside after a 22-mile high-speed chase that involved 62 marked and unmarked cars and reached 100 mph. The pursuit began when Russell’s car backfired as he sped past Cleveland police headquarters and police officers and bystanders thought someone inside had fired a gun.
Brelo was the only officer charged because prosecutors said he waited until the pair no longer a threat to fire his final 15 rounds.
Russell, 43, and Williams, 30, were each shot more than 20 times. While prosecutors argued they were alive until Brelo’s final salvo, medical examiners for both sides testified that they could not determine the order in which the fatal shots were fired.
Brelo has been on unpaid leave since he was indicted May 30, 2014.
Authorities never learned why Russell didn’t stop. He had a criminal record including convictions for receiving stolen property and robbery and had been involved in a previous police pursuit. Williams had convictions for drug-related charges and attempted abduction. Both were described as mentally ill, homeless and addicted to drugs. A crack pipe was found in the car.
In addition to the charges against Brelo, a grand jury charged five police supervisors with misdemeanor dereliction of duty for failing to control the chase. All five have pleaded not guilty and no trial date has been set.
The shooting helped prompt a months-long investigation by the Department of Justice, which concluded last December that the Cleveland police department had engaged in a pattern and practice of using excessive force and violating people’s civil rights. The city and DOJ are currently negotiating a reform-minded consent decree that a federal judge will approve and independent monitors will oversee.
Two years after the deaths of Russell and Williams, a white officer fatally shot Rice, the 12-year-old, in a Cleveland park after police received a report of a man with a gun. Surveillance video showed the officer firing on Rice within two seconds of his patrol car skidding to a stop next to him.
Associated Press writers Andrew Welsh-Huggins and John Coyne contributed to this report.