Cleveland Police Officer Michael Brelo was acquitted of voluntary manslaughter of Timothy Russell and Melissa Williams. A total of 137 rounds were fired into their car, including 49 by Brelo, as he stood atop the hood of their car and fired through the windshield. They were unarmed, although reported to have fired shots because their car had earlier backfired.
The bench trial was marked by the disgraceful refusal of the other police officers present to testify, under the guise of Fifth Amendment privilege (to which they’re entitled) but for the purpose of protecting their fellow officer. The verdict still shocked. Judge John P. O’Donnell began his decision with an acknowledgement of Cleveland’s disastrously poor relationship between police and the public.
In many American places people are angry with, mistrusting and fearful of the police. Citizens think the men and women sworn to protect and serve have violated that oath or never meant it in the first place. Some of these places are long familiar: New York City and Baltimore. Some were unfamiliar until incidents there laid bare the divide between the people and the police: Ferguson, Missouri and North Charleston, South Carolina. Probably not coincidentally these places are mostly African-American communities.
Cleveland, too, is one such place, as the reaction and attention to this case and other recent events has shown.
Yet, the judge noted that his verdict was about one defendant in one case, not a referendum on police, race or violence.
In parsing the evidence, the judge focused on an element that was curiously problematic. There is nothing about this case that made Brelo look like a brave, honorable cop. But guilt is proven beyond a reasonable doubt, even when the defendant is a police officer.