Saturday, May 31, 2014 at 8:55 AM
A grand jury in Cuyahoga County has indicted six members of the Cleveland police force in connection with a chase and fatal shooting in 2012. ideastream's Nick Castele reports.
On the night of Nov. 29 of that year, Timothy Russell and his passenger, Malissa Williams, led dozens of police on a chase that lasted more than 20 minutes. Officers claimed they'd been fired on.
The chase ended in a middle school parking lot in East Cleveland. Police say Russell drove his car at them, prompting 13 officers to fire 137 rounds, killing him and Williams.
Now, after a year and a half and many investigations, Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Timothy McGinty says one of those 13 officers -- Michael Brelo -- faces two counts of voluntary manslaughter. McGinty says as Russell's car came to a halt, most officers stopped shooting.
"Then Officer Brelo started shooting again and fired at least 15 shots, including fatal shots, downward through the windshield into the victims at close range as he stood on the hood of Mr. Russell's car," McGinty said at a press conference announcing the indictment.
Brelo has claimed he actually crawled on top of a police cruiser to fire from above -- and then only remembers standing by Russell's driver's side door after the shooting ended.
Brelo is a Marine veteran who served in Iraq in 2005. In footage obtained from the Attorney General's office of an emotional interview with investigators , Brelo said he'd never even fired his weapon overseas.
"I've never been so afraid in my life," Brelo told investigators in December 2012. "And I just couldn't understand why the suspects were moving still shooting at us."
Investigators found Brelo fired 49 shots the night of the chase.
Despite the initial belief that Russell or Williams may have fired at police, investigators have never found a gun. The state attorney general says police were caught in their own crossfire.
Case Western Reserve University law professor Michael Benza says the severity of the manslaughter charges is significant.
"It is unusual for prosecutors to indict their own police officers for felonies in these types of cases," Benza said.
Beyond Brelo's indictment, five police supervisors also face charges of dereliction of duty. The city fired one of those supervisors last year, and disciplined others. The city also disciplined dozens of officers involved in the chase but not charged.
But the officers have their defenders. Patrick D'Angelo, the attorney for the police patrolmen's union, says Brelo and the others made the right call in the moment.
"You must put yourselves in the shoes of the police officer where he has to react in a very dangerous setting with rapidly unfolding events," D'Angelo said at a news conference after the indictment was announced. "I will represent to you that the way Mr. McGinty presented what happened on Nov. 29 is a fairy tale."
Attorneys for Russell's and Williams' families say this is the beginning of the response from the justice system their clients have been waiting for. The families have also sued police and the city of Cleveland in federal court.
"We feel there is an opportunity for justice to be served," read a statement from Williams family released to media Friday. "Now is the time for us to join and have positive dialogue about solutions. We need to figure out how the police department can work better with the community and not against them."
Paul Cristallo, an attorney representing the Russell family, expressed similar sentiments.
"They want the people responsible for this tragedy -- they want them held accountable," Cristallo said in a phone interview. "We took another step today."
Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson said in a news conference that the city will begin administrative hearings for the 12 officers who opened fire and were not charged. Jackson called the shooting a tragedy for the city.
"It's a tragedy for the people who lost their lives and the family," Jackson said. "It's a tragedy in regards to those police officers who were involved and their families. And it's an overall tragedy for the community at large."
Police Chief Calvin Williams said Brelo will be suspended without pay, and the indicted supervisors will be placed on restricted duty, while the criminal case plays out.
Cleveland State University urban studies professor Ronnie Dunn says it's hard to discuss this case without also looking at race. Russell and Williams were black. Of the 13 officers who opened fire, 12 are white and one is Hispanic.
"We would do ourselves a disservice if we weren't honest and looked at it candidly and just acknowledged race is a factor in this city," Dunn said.
The police union says this has nothing to do with race. And as for the allegations in the indictment, the facts may trickle out in court in what could be a long proceeding.
With reporting by David C. Barnett.