Trial Begins for Cleveland Police Officer Charged in 2012 Car Chase Shooting

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The trial began Monday of a Cleveland police officer charged in the deaths of two people after a 2012 car chase that involved dozens of officers, 137 shots fired, and sparked a federal investigation of the department.

Michael Brelo faces two counts of voluntary manslaughter in the shooting deaths of Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams.

Thirteen officers took part in the shooting, but Brelo is the only one facing manslaughter charges. Cuyahoga County prosecutors say he continued firing even when others stopped, believing the threat was over. They contend that’s when Brelo crossed a legal line, firing multiple shots into the windshield of Russell’s car while standing on the hood. They of the 137 shots fired, Brelo is responsible for 49.

Brelo is a former Marine, and told investigators he was more afraid during the incident than he was in Iraq. In his opening arguments, Prosecutor Rick Bell brought that up repeatedly. 

"Those military rules are for every soldier with a purposeful objective to kill enemy combatants. Citizens are not the enemy, and Timothy Russell and Melissa Williams were not in a war," Bell said.

Bell said he will present evidence that Russell and Williams were alive when Brelo shot at them from the hood of Russell's car, and that Williams, who was trapped inside, had her hands up.

Defense attorney Patrick D’Angelo argued the prosecution was portraying events through the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, and denying the fast-paced, often dangerous reality of police work as it unfolds. He said Brelo understood the difference between warfare and civilian policing, and had fired into the car "not because he was in Iraq, and not because he was Rambo, and not because he was finishing off some people because of the color of their skin. He did it out of fear, and out of perception that they were taking gunfire."

D’Angelo argued Brelo’s fear was the same as the dozen other officers who also fired their weapons, and that radio recordings will show that officers believed the two suspects had a weapon.

"It's unmistakable. This is the human instinct for self-preservation. No one likes to get shot and killed. So you see many officers ducking for cover," D'Angelo said.

Prosecutors distinguished Brelo's actions from other officers', saying the exposed position he eventually took on the car showed he did not feel actively threatened. They argude that means his actions were unjustified.

"He made the choice to get on the hood of the Malibu. He made the choice to keep killing to make sure that they were dead," prosecutor Bell said. "This is an unreasonable choice."

Bell again brought up Brelo's military service, saying the standards for use of deadly force were different in civilian police work. And he called into question what Brelo told state investigators he remembered about the incident. Bell called his memory "selective." Brelo had said he couldn't remember stepping onto the hood of Russell's car.

While prosecutors tried to humanize Russell and Williams, describing them as challenged by difficult lives, mental illness and drug addiction, The defense tried to paint a picture of Brelo's possible thought process during the incident, to portray his reactions as rational ones. Attorney D'Angelo said after officers heard the sound that investigators later determined was likely the 1979 Chevy Malibu backfiring, they pursued the chase out of a belief public safety was threatened. If they thought someone inside had tried to fire at police, then it followed to assume they posed an even greater risk to the general public, he argued.

D'Angelo said when the car fled at high speed, that confirmed officers' initial impressions.

"It takes a pretty brazen individual to flee that number of cars pursuing with sirens and emergency lights flashing," he said.

No gun was ever found in Russell's car.

Prosecutors pointed out the chase violated the police department's own policies and said it put many people at risk. The defense countered that violation of department policies does not mean the actions constitute a crime.

The state began its case with testimony from the officer who first stopped Russell for a turn signal violation. Expert witnesses are expected during the week, and Cuyahoga County Judge John O’Donnell plans to visit the site of the shooting on Friday.  Brelo waived his right to a jury trial, so O’Donnell will decide the case.

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