CLEVELAND- Attorneys delivered closing arguments in the trial of the Cleveland officer charged in the November 2012 deadly police chase and shooting.
Michael Brelo, 31, faces two counts of voluntary manslaughter for the deaths of Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams. Police began pursuing Russell’s Chevrolet Malibu on Nov. 29, 2012 after an officer reported hearing gunfire. The 22-minute chase ended with 137 shots fired behind Heritage Middle School in East Cleveland.
Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Judge John O’Donnell is hearing the case. If convicted, Brelo faces a maximum sentence of 22 years in prison.
“This chase was lead by everyone and no one, a mishmash,” assistant prosecutor Erica Barnhill said. “One mistake lead to another and another and another until it dead ended at the middle school.” Barnhill said officers in the second district violated police policies, resulting in a “free for all.”
Prosecutors suggested Russell’s car backfired, which was misheard as a gunshot. They also said Williams did not have a gun; She was holding a pop can and waving her hands to say she surrendered.
“The community expects police officers to protect them and they expect them to interact with diverse citizens,” assistant prosecutor Sherrie Royster said. “Timothy Russell made some bad decisions that night, but it’s shouldn’t have been a death sentence for him.”
Royster said Brelo’s intent was to kill when he jumped onto the trunk of a police zone car and the suspect’s vehicle.
“He fires his last 15 shots into their bodies, essentially using them for target practice,” Royster said. BCI agents determined Brelo shot 49 times at the scene.
The prosecution also noted Cleveland Police Officer Brian Sabolik, who they said had courage to tell the truth. Sabolik reported that Brelo was the officer standing on the hood of the car. Those statements were supported by shoe prints collected from the car.
But the defense argued Sabolik’s testimony proved Brelo was justified because the rookie officer also perceived an ongoing threat.
Defense attorney Tom Shaughnessy told the judge this case is not about hindsight or playing “Monday morning quarterback.” He mentioned expert testimony that indicated officers do not need to prove a threat to use deadly force, they simply have to perceive a threat.
That argument continued with defense attorney Pat D’Angelo’s portion of the closing arguments. He said Williams and Russell did nothing to prove they were not dangerous.
D’Angelo said we’ll never know if the suspects had a gun, adding “We do know they were smoking crack.”
The defense also stated these officers were scared and trying to protect themselves.
“These officers have family. They’re married, they have children,” said. “They work these mean streets, they know what it’s like to deal with heartless felons… These men and women responded because of their call of duty.”