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Cleveland Police Officer On Trial In Deaths Of 2 Unarmed Black Suspects


Here at home, a Cleveland police officer is on trial for two counts of voluntary man slaughter. This stems from a late-night, high-speed car chase that ended with police shooting 137 bullets at two black suspects. This prompted a scathing report from the Justice Department. But it hasn't been in the news lately like other high-profile police shootings. This incident happened more than two years ago. Annie Wu, of member station WCPN, reports.

ANNIE WU, BYLINE: It was around 10:30 at night on November 29, 2012 that Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams's car raced by two police officers in downtown Cleveland. They were already fleeing an earlier traffic stop. As they passed, police heard what they believed were gunshots coming from the car.


UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER #1: Shots fired out of the vehicle I was confronting with mobile support - popped a round right as he drove by us.

WU: Police inaccurately described the suspects as two armed, black males in a blue Chevy. Officers gave chase - lots of officers, one after another in as many as 62 police cars from five different jurisdictions across 19 miles, ending in a middle school parking lot. Then, the shooting began.


WU: It took about 20 seconds for 13 police officers, 12 white and one Hispanic, to fire a barrage of 137 bullets, killing Russell and Williams. Toxicology reports showed both had drugs in their systems. No gun was found in the Chevy or along the chase route. State investigators believe the initial gunshot sound was Russell's 1979 Malibu backfiring. They also determined that shots hitting police cars came from friendly fire after officers inadvertently formed a semicircle around the Chevy.


MICHAEL BRELO: And I just couldn't understand why the suspects were moving and still shooting at us.

WU: That's Officer Michael Brelo, who's on trial for the shooting. In an interview with investigators soon afterward, a visibly distraught Brelo described his actions that night.


BRELO: I just felt that if - at least if I had some elevation, I could shoot into the suspect's vehicle and try to stop the threat.

WU: Brelo found elevation by crouching on the trunk of another police car. But investigators also found his footprints on the hood of Russell's car. County prosecutors say Brelo fired 49 shots in all, 15 at the very end, as he stood above Russell and Williams after most other police officers had stopped shooting. That, they argue, is when he committed a crime. Brelo is the only officer being charged. In opening arguments earlier this month, prosecutor Rick Bell said Brelo fired the fatal final shots.


RICK BELL: He fired and reloaded, fired and reloaded, almost emptying the third magazine.

WU: At question is whether Brelo's shots killed the suspects. Experts say Russell and Williams were shot from above, but investigators with Ohio's Bureau of Criminal Investigations, or BCI, were only able to match shell casings, not bullets, with each gun. And then there's the problem of witnesses. While there's some audio of the shooting, there's no video. And three officers involved are refusing to testify, invoking their right against self-incrimination. In a courtroom outburst last week, County Prosecutor Timothy McGinty expressed frustration with what he calls the blue wall.


TIMOTHY MCGINTY: They knew what happened that night. Those 20 officers knew what was going on, and they didn't tell Detective Holcomb. They didn't tell the BCI. That's why we've gone to these extremes.

WU: Michael Brelo waived his right to a jury trial. So it falls on Judge John O'Donnell to decide if Brelo's use of force was unreasonable and if he caused Russell and Williams's deaths. Case Western Reserve University law professor Michael Benza says a bench trial gives the defense a tactical advantage.

MICHAEL BENZA: There's a little bit more trust in judges to say the judge knows the law. The judge is going to follow the law. And the judge is going to do what the law says - even if the judge doesn't like it.

WU: For all the legal issues being argued in the trial about bullet casings and police procedures, one issue that hasn't come into play much at all is race. Officer Brelo is white. Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams were black.


UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER #1: Black life has value.


UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER #1: Black life has value, amen?

WU: When the shooting first occurred, there were community meetings and small demonstrations. But the outcry didn't last long. And so far, race hasn't been a factor in the trial. What has been a factor behind the scenes is the unwritten alliance between prosecutors and police. By putting law enforcement on trial, this case damages a long-standing bond. This week, the prosecution wrapped up its arguments and defense lawyers immediately moved to have the case dismissed. If it isn't, it's unclear whether Brelo will take the stand. That's because he told investigators he has no memory of standing on top of the Malibu and shooting into the windshield. For NPR News, I'm Annie Wu in Cleveland. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Annie Wu