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NOT GUILTY: Verdict in Prosecution of Cleveland Officer Brelo

NOT GUILTY: Verdict in Prosecution of Cleveland Officer Brelo

Not guilty on all charges

In a case that somehow had not come on my radar screen, minutes ago Cleveland Police Officer Michael Brelo (who is white) was found not guilty by Judge John. P. O’Connell of all criminal charges resulting from his shooting of Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams (who were both black). Brelo had been charged with two counts of voluntary manslaughter and two lesser included charges of felonious assault.

This case was notable in that Russell and William had been reported as firing a shot at officers in front of a criminal justice center, then led numerous responding patrol cars on a high-speed (>100 miles per hour) 22-mile pursuit through the city of Cleveland.

The pursuit ended in an adjacent city’s school parking lot, at which point Russell began ramming the police vehicles with his car.  At that point the 13 officers at scene began firing at Russel and Williams. This firing lasted approximately 20 seconds, and during the last 8 of those seconds Officer Brelo would stand on the suspects’ vehicle and fire a final 15 rounds through the windshield into their bodies.  In total the 13 officers fired 135 shots in this final altercation.

It was agreed that the initial 12 seconds of firing was a reasonable use of force, but the prosecutor argued that Brelo’s firing in the last 8 seconds was unreasonable and constituted either voluntary manslaughter or the lesser included charge of felonious assault.

The trial was also notable in that it was a bench trial in which the Judge John. P. O’Connell acted as the finder of fact.

Even more unusually, at the close of the trial the judge spent over an hour, prior to announcing the verdict, stepping through his rationale for coming to his conclusion.

The result is Judge O’Connell ruled that:

  • The two counts of voluntary manslaughter had not been proven beyond a reasonable doubt;
  • The two counts of felonious assault had been proven beyond a reasonable doubt; but
  • Brelo escapes legal liability for those assault charges because he proved justification by a preponderance of the evidence.

Bottom line: Not guilty on all charges.

I have extensive notes I hurriedly took while the judge was speaking live, and will post those up as an update.

–-Andrew, @LawSelfDefense

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Bench trial…gutsy move.

I wonder if this might have application to the Baltimore case.

It’s worth noting that the gunfire from the victims was actually a car backfire, and that the only thing these two did was flee.

    Barry in reply to JWB. | May 23, 2015 at 11:54 am

    “…the only thing these two did was flee.”

    22 miles at speeds > 100.

    Apparently you missed the part were the deceased used a weapon to attack the police, his vehicle.

      JWB in reply to Barry. | May 23, 2015 at 1:28 pm

      I did indeed miss the ramming claim. But I’ll withhold judgment on that unless/until I get more information on it.

      A lot of the time, police use “ram” as justification for lethal force when it’s an accidental collision or minor bump. Other times it’s a deliberate attempt to run the officer down or disable his vehicle. One is justified, the other not.

        Neither side contested the ramming. Hard to contest when you have smashed cars, and easy to believe, when dealing with two miscreants already led police on a 22-mile 100mph chase through a densely populated urban center.

        –Andrew, @LawSelfDefense

    Ragspierre in reply to JWB. | May 23, 2015 at 11:56 am

    “The pursuit ended in an adjacent city’s school parking lot, at which point Russell began ramming the police vehicles with his car.”

    You really are truth-challenged, huh?

    As you’re directly contradicting a courtroom judge, I’m wondering what your source is. Though I imagine I’m wasting my time…

    meyou in reply to JWB. | May 23, 2015 at 12:44 pm

    Dear JWB, you certainly deserve to READ LegalInsurrection, as it will make an excellent learning tool for you, but I personally don’t see your comments having a place here. Yet. Maybe someday!

    elizajane in reply to JWB. | May 23, 2015 at 1:23 pm

    JBW is perfectly correct, the original “shot” was later determined to have been a car backfiring. However, the officer did not know that when he shot the couple.

      That’s not the problem. The first part about the gunfire isn’t the problem.

      That second part, “and the only thing they did was flee”, can only be read as a flagrant, spectacular lie. As a white male, if I rammed a police vehicle at the end of a high speed chase, I certainly wouldn’t expect to get out of it alive, whether or not I had a firearm. And that’s certainly not an act of flight. It’s assault with a deadly weapon. Cars kill more people than guns after all.

    Char Char Binks in reply to JWB. | May 24, 2015 at 12:08 am

    The last time I heard a car backfire was about 1990. Does it even happen anymore? It really sounds like more nonsense from the dindunuffins.

legacyrepublican | May 23, 2015 at 11:41 am

#BlueLivesMatterToo He had a right to defend himself and the court said he was justified! Good verdict.

Is Cleveland burning yet? 😀 😀 😀

Below are excerpts from Attorney General DeWine’s remarks. They can be directly attributed to him.

“This is a tragedy – a tragedy for Timothy Russell, a tragedy for Malissa Williams, and a tragedy for their families. This has also been very tough for each of the law enforcement officers involved.

“To state the obvious, this chase could have ended without tragic results if Timothy Russell had simply stopped the car in response to the police pursuit. Perhaps the alcohol and cocaine in his system impaired his judgment. We will never know.”

“Police officers have a very difficult job. They must make life and death decisions in a split second based on whatever information they have in that moment. In a situation like this, they are under tremendous stress. But, when you have an emergency, like what happened that night, the system has to be strong enough to override subjective decisions made by individuals who are under that extreme stress.

“Policy, training, communications, and command have to be so strong and so ingrained to prevent subjective judgment from spiraling out of control. The system has to take over and put on the brakes.

“On November 29, 2012, the system failed everyone.”

“It was agreed that the initial 12 seconds of firing was a reasonable use of force,

but the prosecutor argued that Brelo’s firing in the last 8 seconds was unreasonable and constituted either voluntary manslaughter or the lesser included charge of felonious assault.”


No wonder the judge took an hour to explain his findings.

Henry Bowman | May 23, 2015 at 12:50 pm

Sounds as though at least one cop went nuts—emptying his weapon into two people who were plainly no longer a threat. Not quite as heinous as the crazy cops in Miami who fired over 350 rounds at a disabled vehicle in Dec 2013, but really wacky nonetheless. These cops seem very poorly trained.

    From what I’ve been reading of the judge’s explanation, it absolutely was not clear these individuals were no longer a threat. Playing bumper cars with police vehicles in a lot with no exit (except through the cops) is not a safe, cuddly thing. The kindest thing that can be said about the deceased is that they lacked assault rifles, so they used their vehicle as a weapon instead. It didn’t work out, but they tried.

    Someone went nuts, but it wasn’t the cops. If you expect cops to chase someone for 20 miles through traffic at speeds approaching 100 mph and remain calm you don’t understand people, sir. The crooks, as well as those citizens who think what they were doing at the time was not all THAT bad, are the nuts.

Are the Justice Brothers on their way to Cleveland to stoke the fires of wrack and ruin on the city? I am surprised that they weren’t already there to to do just that. I guess Cleveland is not important enough to warrant their attention.

FYI, I’ve updated with a follow-on post containing detailed notes of the Judge’s rationale as presented live in the court room this morning.

–Andrew, @LawSelfDefense

Case seems to get into the important issue of what happens when an officer puts himself in harm’s way. Sometimes that is necessary to end a threat, and it obviously plays into the question of at what point an officer should reasonably perceive a threat to be ended and stop shooting. If he is behind cover he doesn’t have to be certain the threat has ended and has the luxury of taking a wait and see approach, but if he is in the line of possible fire he has to keep shooting until he is certain the threat is ended.

All 13 officers involved thought the suspects were armed and had showed deadly intent and none of them are being faulted for shooting. Belo is being charged with continuing to shoot after the threat had ended, but he had placed himself in the line of fire by scampering over his own vehicle onto the hood of the car the suspects were in and shooting down through the windshield. From that position, and believing the suspects were armed and could shoot him, he had to keep shooting until he was certain they were out of the fight, which means until he was certain that he had taken out their central nervous systems. Even a fatally wounded suspect could still kill him if his central nervous system was still functioning. So the extra shooting by Belo seems entirely reasonable, given the position he had put himself in.

In the case of the police I don’t think a prosecutor would question that it is not a crime for an officer to put himself in harm’s way and then use that peril as justification for shooting but there was a case out here in CA several years ago where the DA charged an armed civilian with murder for defending himself after he had put himself in harm’s way somewhat in the manner of Belo.

That was the Gremminger case, a gross miscarriage of justice that I wrote about at the time. A security guard had tailed a thief out of a mall and parked behind the thief’s car. As the thief started bashing his way free Gremminger ran over just in time to find himself standing in front of the thief’s car just as the thief was getting his car clear. Instead of getting out of the way Gremminger pulled his gun and stayed in front of the car. The thief then shifted his car from reverse to forward and started to come at Gremminger who stood his ground and fired.

Essentially the prosecutor’s claim was that if Gremminger was not going to jump out of the way then he had to let himself get run over. He was not allowed to stand his ground and defend himself. CA does not have a stand-your-ground law, but the very first provision of the state constitution is the right to self-defense, so unless it was illegal for Gremminger to stand in front of the fleeing felon he did have a constitutional right to shoot.

Witnesses said the shoplifter did start to drive at Gremminger. Headline “Victim Drove at Gremminger, Witness Says / First prosecution witness bolsters self-defense claim,” so there was no question about the lethal threat. The position of the prosecutor was that Gremminger had no right to get involved at all, that he never should have come to the aid of the security guard. His taking personal action to intervene was declared to be “vigilantism,” and that was the public rationale for the prosecution: the need to stop people from taking direct action to stop crime.

Of course the label is a fraud. A vigilante is someone who acts as judge jury and executioner, but Gremminger was not executing his own verdict. He was defending himself from an immediate lethal threat, as the state constitution allows. A ruling against Belo would have been a step in the Gremminger-case direction of making it a crime to put oneself in harm’s way when confronting a threat, but this time extended to police officers, which would really be a poser.

So neither private citizens nor the police are allowed to put themselves in harm’s way? Very often there is no way to confront a threat without putting oneself in harm’s way. It would be a step towards the criminalization of law enforcement, or I should say a further step, because blocking private citizens from confronting crime is also criminalizing enforcement of the laws.

Not surprising that this is exa ctly what the BlackLivesMatter people want, since all of their icons were criminals who were trying to get away with murder (Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown) or some lesser crime. They want to make it a crime to use force against black criminals, even in response to the most extreme violence from black criminals. It’s a pure criminals’ lobby.

Sorry for leaving the open tag. Feel free to fix it!

    Ragspierre in reply to AlecRawls. | May 23, 2015 at 2:30 pm

    Something to remember and teach…

    cops are scared. They may or may not have every right to be, given a realistic understanding of the threat-level they face, but that doesn’t matter in your and my interaction with them.

    Treat them as people who are scared, and you can’t go far wrong.

Richard Aubrey | May 24, 2015 at 4:47 pm

Random notes:
Last time I got a traffic ticket, all I saw of the cop was his belt buckle in my left outside mirror. Good cop work.
The folks who think their “icons” are killed for nothing genuinely think that the crimes involved are “nothing” because they’re being committed by the Right Sort, who have privilege.
WRT Gremmnger, does CA have a duty to retreat, or did the prosecution attempt to make that up?
“Vigilantiism” is overused. Some time ago, in a small township, the county had not done anything about potholes in far too long. As a rural place, the folks had ways and means and when the John Deeres got through, the township honchos complained of “vigilantiism”.

Richard Aubrey | May 24, 2015 at 7:56 pm

Backfire? People watching the Ed Sullivan show could have got the joke. Last thirty years? And, coincidentally, just in front of a police station is the only backfire in the city in the last fifteen years.
Pull the other one.

    Char Char Binks in reply to Richard Aubrey. | May 24, 2015 at 8:26 pm

    Good points. I originally thought the idea of a car backfiring in this century was far-fetched, but Russell was driving a ’79 Chevy Malibu, a car practically designed to backfire. However, that it happened in front of the cop shop is suspicious, as you say. Any cop hearing a car backfire, after probably not having heard one in decades, or, in the case of a younger cop, not having hear one EVER, could reasonably, if mistakenly, think it’s a gunshot.