Updated Mon, Jun 2, 2014 2:12 pm
A grand jury in Cuyahoga County has indicted six members of the Cleveland police force in connection with a chase and fatal shooting incident in 2012.
On the night of Nov. 29 of that year, Timothy Russell and his passenger, Malissa Williams, led dozens of police on a chase that lasted more than 20 minutes. Officers claimed they’d been fired on.
The chase ended in a middle school parking lot in East Cleveland. Police said Russell drove his car at them, prompting 13 officers to fire 137 rounds, killing him and Williams.
Now, after a year and a half and many investigations, Cuyahoga County prosecutor Timothy McGinty said one of those 13 officers - Michael Brelo - faces two counts of voluntary manslaughter. McGinty said as Russell’s car came to a halt, most officers stopped shooting.
"Then officer Brelo started shooting again and fired at least 15 shots, including fatal shots, down into the windshield into the victims at close range as he stood on the hood of Mr. Russell’s car," McGinty said.
Brelo has claimed he actually crawled on top of a police cruiser to fire from above - and then only remembers standing by Russell’s driver’s side door after the shooting ended.
Brelo is a Marine veteran who served in Iraq in 2005. In footage of an emotional interview with investigators obtained from the Attorney General’s office, Brelo said he’d never even fired his weapon overseas.
"I’m sorry," Brelo said. "I’ve never been so afraid in my life. And I just couldn’t understand why the suspects were moving still shooting at us.
Investigators found Brelo fired 49 shots the night of the chase.
Despite the initial belief that Russell or Williams may have fired at police, investigators have never found a gun. The state attorney general said police were caught in their own crossfire.
Case Western Reserve University law professor Michael Benza said the severity of the manslaughter charges is significant.
"It is unusual for prosecutors to indict their own police officers for felonies in these types of cases," Benza said.
Beyond Brelo’s indictment, five police supervisors also face charges of dereliction of duty.
But the officers have their defenders. Patrick D’Angelo, the attorney for the police patrolmen’s union, said Brelo and the others made the right call in the moment.
"You must put yourselves in the shoes of the police officer where he has to react in a very dangerous setting with rapidly unfolding events," D'Angelo said. "The way Mr. McGinty presented what happened on Nov. 29 is a fairy tale.”
Attorneys for Russell’s and Williams’ families said this is the beginning of the response from the justice system their clients have been waiting for.
And Cleveland State University criminology professor Ronnie Dunn said it’s hard to discuss this case without also looking at race. Russell and Williams were black. Of the officers who opened fire, 12 are white and one is Hispanic.
"We would do ourselves a disservice if we weren’t honest and looked at it candidly and just acknowledged race is a factor in this city." Dunn said.
The police union said this has nothing to do with race. And as for the allegations in the indictment, the facts may trickle out in court in what could be a long proceeding.