Police Officer’s Acquittal Leads to Unrest in Ohio

     CLEVELAND (CN) – Dozens of churches are planning to rally today after a judge used the holiday weekend to acquit a Cleveland police officer of manslaughter charges.
     The march by about 40 churches comes on the heels of 71 arrests in the city Saturday after Cuyahoga Common Pleas Judge John O’Donnell determined that Michael Brelo did not commit voluntary manslaughter on when he jumped onto the hood of a car and fired 15 shots into the windshield of Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams after a high-speed chase that lasted for 22 minutes.
     As in other incidents raising questions around the country about the use of excessive force by police, Brelo is white and the two people he killed were black. Russell and Williams were also unarmed in the Nov. 29, 2012, confrontation, but Brelo claimed he fired out of fear for his life.
     Clearly mindful of the scrutiny in store for his not-guilty verdict, O’Donnell filed a 33-page opinion that begins with reference to the outrage triggered by police killings in Ferguson, Mo., Staten Island, N.Y., and Baltimore, Md.
     “In many American places people are angry with, mistrusting and fearful of the police,” O’Donnell wrote. “Citizens think the men and women sworn to protect and serve have violated that oath or never meant it in the first place. … Probably not coincidentally these places are mostly African-American communities.”
     O’Donnell said the media is to blame in part for feeding the “animosity toward the police,” but so are “police officers’ affronts – intended or not – to honest people treated as criminals, by unnecessarily brutal treatment of arrested suspects, by daily slights and disrespect – real and imagined – and by the isolation of the police from the people they serve.”
     The judge stressed that his verdict represents only “a conclusion about the evidence in this case.”
     “If he is guilty it doesn’t mean the entire Cleveland Police Department is dysfunctional, incompetent and uncaring,” the opinion states. “If he is not guilty the verdict does not mean the department covered itself in glory on November 29. And guilty or not guilty, the verdict should be no cause for a civilized society to celebrate or riot. Whatever the outcome, two people are still dead and the defendant’s life is forever changed.”
     O’Donnell’s decision goes on to say prosecutors failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the shots Brelo fired actually caused Williams and Russell’s deaths.
     Thirteen officers, including Brelo, fired a total of 137 shots at Russell’s 1979 Chevy Malibu when he rammed into a patrol car after police blockaded him in the parking lot of Heritage Middle School in East Cleveland.
     Brelo inflicted at least one lethal wound to both Russell and Williams, but both were hit by numerous potentially fatal gunshots and there was not enough evidence to support the position that Brelo’s shots had been the ones that actually ended their lives, O’Donnell found.
     Because the officer was engaged in a “constitutionally reasonable effort to end an objectively reasonable perception that he and the others present were threatened by Russell and Williams with imminent serious bodily harm,” O’Donnell said Brelo was legally excused from liability for felonious assault.
     Brelo broke into tears as Judge O’Donnell read his 11 a.m. verdict at the start of Memorial Day weekend.
     The court’s presiding judge, John Russo, explained in an email Saturday afternoon that verdict was timed deliberately with traffic issues and community impact in mind.
     Police prevented a group of demonstrators who gathered outside the Cuyahoga County Justice Center from entering the building after the verdict was read.
     The protesters surrounded Brelo’s defense attorney, Pat D’Angelo, as he was escorted into the building.
     Others gathered at the site of another black life extinguished by Cleveland police – the Cudell Recreation Center where 12-year-old Tamir Rice was killed this November while playing with an airsoft pellet gun.
     The two groups eventually merged and marched downtown on Detroit Road, moving toward Progressive Field where a Cleveland Indians game was letting out.
     Near Quicken Loans Arena, the quiet mood shifted when one demonstrator threw a sign and hit a patron who was walking into a nearby restaurant.
     Three people were arrested then, and another four found themselves in handcuffs after an altercation with restaurant patrons on East Fourth Street, a narrow, pedestrian-only corridor populated with upscale restaurants and bars.
     Two more were arrested about a half an hour later after some protestors used pepper spray on bar patrons who were standing outside.
     The majority of the 71 arrests made Saturday occurred after sundown when police in riot gear blocked protestors into an alley between West Sixth Street and West Ninth Street.
     Officers refused to let media enter the alley and then arrested a large number of protesters who they say had engaged in violent behavior and refused to disburse.
     Sixty-two of those arrested have been charged with failure to disburse, a first-degree misdemeanor. Fifty-three have been released from jail.
     The Rev. Al Sharpton is scheduled to appear as a guest speaker at a rally planned for May 29.

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