CLEVELAND- The trial started Monday for a Cleveland police officer accused of manslaughter in connection with a 2012 deadly police chase and shooting.
Michael Brelo, 31, is charged with two counts of voluntary manslaughter for the deaths of Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams. Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Judge John O’Donnell is hearing the case.
Russell and Williams were killed after a chase that started when an officer thought he heard gunfire near the Cuyahoga County Justice Center on Nov. 29, 2012. The chase ended behind an East Cleveland school with 13 Cleveland officers firing 137 shots into Russell’s car. Prosecutors said Brelo fired 49 of those shots. Investigators did not find a gun in the car.
In the courtroom on Monday, prosecutors set up a large display depicting the scene in the East Cleveland parking lot. There are several model police cruisers and a model of the car Russell and Williams were in. It will remain in the courtroom for most of the trial.
During opening statements, prosecuting attorneys said Williams and Russell lived on the margins of society, struggling with mental illness and drugs. They accused Officer Brelo of firing 49 shots, including several from the trunk of a zone car and the hood of the suspect's car.
Defense attorney Patrick D'Angelo said Brelo and the other officers did what they had to in order to survive and protect the community. They believed they were under fire and just because investigators never recovered a gun, doesn't mean there wasn't a weapon in Russell's car, D'Angelo said.
Prosecutors called two witnesses in the afternoon: Officer John Jordan and Officer Vasile Nan. Jordan initiated Russell's traffic stop, but did not pursue when they fled. Nan told the judge he believed he heard gunfire.
Councilmen Zack Reed and Jeff Johnson were in the courtroom to observe, as well as members of the Williams and Russell families.
On Friday, Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Tim McGinty said most officers still refuse to cooperate in the investigation. The FOX 8 I-Team also learned police union leaders sent a memo to officers instructing them to only speak with prosecutors if they want to.
"We ask the police involved to recall the oath they took when they became police officers and to remember that it is their duty to tell the court at trial what they saw and heard – just as any other citizen is expected to do – so that the judge can determine the facts and apply the laws of our state and the nation. There’s still time to do what is right," McGinty said in a statement.
“In the absence of fact, these parlor tricks and smoke and mirror tactics of Tim McGinty are his attempt to try this case in the public and not the courtroom,” said Cleveland Police Patrolmen's Association President Steve Loomis. He also said every officer did cooperate and all officers involved gave statements to BCI right after the chase.
Five supervisors, four sergeants and a lieutenant face dereliction of duty charges for the shooting. Those trials will begin after Brelo’s.
In November, a probate judge approved a settlement, granting the families of each victim $1.5 million.