Cleveland officer Michael Brelo not guilty in deaths of 2 unarmed suspects
13 officers fired 137 shots after high-speed chase
A Cleveland police officer was found not guilty on Saturday of voluntary manslaughter in the shooting deaths of an unarmed man and a woman who were killed after a high-speed car chase in 2012.
Judge John O'Donnell said Officer Michael Brelo, 31, acted reasonably in shooting the two suspects while standing on the hood of their car and firing through the windshield after it was surrounded. Brelo was also found not guilty of aggravated assault in the case.
The trial, which began on April 6, took place at a time when U.S. law enforcement is under close scrutiny for the use of lethal force against minority groups. It followed a series of high-profile deaths of unarmed black men in confrontations with white police officers in various states across the country.
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The two people who were killed, Malissa Williams and Timothy Russell, were black and Brelo, a former marine, is white.
"Brelo was acting in conditions difficult for even experienced officers to imagine," O'Donnell said during the roughly hour-long reading of the verdict.
A small crowd of demonstrators gathered outside the courthouse in Cleveland protesting the verdict, chanting "No justice, no peace," while police in riot gear patrolled the crowd. Reaction on Twitter was swift, with many people commenting that they were bewildered by the judge's reasoning.
"We sat here an hour just to be slapped in the face AGAIN," wrote a user identified as PB, or @blackloundproud, referring to the time it took for O'Donnell to read his verdict.
"This is becoming too repetitive for me now. There's no way these courts can legitimately let these acts dance off scot-free," wrote Jacky, or @jackyalcine.
Brelo's attorney, Patrick D'Angelo, slammed the prosecution for pursuing the charges against his client.
"The prosecution in this case spared no expense and in fact was ruthless," D'Angelo said, speaking after the verdict. "It was classically a case of David vs Goliath."
Five other police supervisors who were indicted on misdemeanour dereliction-of-duty charges in the case are scheduled to go on trial in July. Sixty-four officers have been disciplined.
Cleveland paid the families of Williams and Russell $1.5 million each to settle a wrongful death lawsuit.
Brelo, who waived his right to a jury trial, would have faced between three and 11 years in prison had he been convicted.
The case came as Ohio police are investigating the death last November of 12-year-old Tamir Rice. Rice was playing with a replica handgun that mainly shoots plastic pellets when he was shot twice by Cleveland police responding to a 911 emergency call about a man with a gun outside a recreation centre. He died the next day.
Experts testifying for Brelo said Williams and Russell died early in a barrage of gunfire, and Brelo had acted reasonably in the belief that they were shooting at him and other officers.
Defence attorneys said ballistic experts could not determine who or how many officers fired the final shots.
The chase, which started in downtown Cleveland after reports of gunfire coming from the car, went through multiple cities at speeds topping 145 km/h and ended with 13 Cleveland police officers firing 137 rounds.
Russell was struck 24 times and Williams 23 times. No weapon was found in the car or along the route, and a forensic mechanic testified that the car, a 1979 Chevrolet Malibu, was prone to backfiring.