Updated at 1:15 p.m. ET
A judge handed down a verdict of not guilty on two counts of voluntary manslaughter against a Cleveland officer charged in the 2012 deaths of Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams — unarmed suspects who were caught in a 137-shot hail of police gunfire following a high-speed chase.
Small protests quickly erupted in Cleveland, but they appeared to be peaceful.
“In summary, I find that the state did not prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant Michael Brelo caused the deaths Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams because the essential element of causation was not proved for both counts,” Judge John P. O’Donnell.
In a nearly hour-long verdict, O’Donnell cited testimony from a doctors for the prosecution and defense, saying he believed that while Brelo had delivered at least one fatal shot to both Russell and Williams, it was impossible to determine beyond a reasonable doubt that Brelo’s shots — and not those of a dozen other officers — were the ones that killed.
O’Donnell, who began hearing testimony on April 6, also determined that Brelo’s use of force was constitutionally reasonable.
The judge said that Brelo and fellow officers involved in the shooting perceived that Russell and Williams posed a threat. Among other things, when officers responded to the call on November 29, 2012, they were doing so based on an incorrect report that the suspects had fired from their 1979 Chevy Malibu.
“It is Brelo’s perception of a threat that matters,” O’Donnell said declining to find the defendant guilty on the lesser count of felonious assault.
The defendant listened to the lengthy decision mostly without visible emotion, but wept when the final verdict was delivered. If convicted, Brelo, an Iraq war veteran, would have faced three to 11 years in prison for each count.
Before announcing the verdict, O’Donnell said that anger with the police “will not be expiated by a verdict in a single criminal case.” He also assured the court that “Brelo’s badge” would not bear on the decision but that he would also not “sacrifice” the officer if the evidence was inconclusive.
“Guilty or not guilty, the verdict should be no cause for a civilized society to celebrate or riot,” he said.
Although 13 officers discharged their weapons during the incident, only Brelo, 31 was charged with voluntary manslaughter because “prosecutors said he waited until the car had stopped and the occupants were no longer a threat to fire 15 rounds down into the windshield while standing on its hood.”
In total, Brelo fired 49 of the 137 shots, prosecutors said. Russell was hit 23 times; Williams was shot 24 times.
Cuyahoga Country Prosecutor Timothy McGinty said the case showed that the police need an “exhaustive” new training program.
“The end result should be better trained police forces” that can deescalate dangerous situations,” McGinty said following the verdict.
Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson, speaking at an afternoon news conference said he wanted the community to know that “we support peaceful protests.”
But, he said, “I want to make sure that those who have a different agenda … understand that it cannot be tolerated.”
Jackson said that it was a defining moment for Cleveland and that “Whatever injustices there might have been will not be repeated.”
He said that he knew the way the charges were framed that it would be “difficult” to get a conviction. He also said the other officers involved in the incident would still face discipline.
Jackson said he had spoken with Gov. John Kasich about the case.
Cleveland Police Chief Calvin Williams echoed the call for peaceful demonstrations.
In December, the U.S. Department of Justice concluded that the Brelo and the other officers had “found a pattern of excessive force by Cleveland police. The 18-month federal civil rights investigation also found police supervisors failed to document and investigate claims of brutality,” according to NPR’s Carrie Johnson.
The Associated Press notes that during the trial Brelo’s attorneys “argued and testimony showed that other officers fired during the final barrage and that prosecutors couldn’t prove in what order the fatal shots were fired.”