A judge today acquitted a white Cleveland police officer in the 2012 shooting deaths of an unarmed black couple, saying he couldn't determine whether the officer alone fired the fatal shots at the end of a 137-bullet barrage.
Michael Brelo was acquitted of voluntary manslaughter and a lesser charge of felonious assault in the shooting deaths of Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams. He was visibly emotional as Cuyahoga County Judge John O'Donnell read a portion of his verdict in open court.
Prosecutors said Brelo, 31, was one of 13 officers who fired 137 times into the couple's car in the November 2012 shooting. The 22-mile, high-speed chase through Cleveland began when an officer tried pulling over Russell for a turn signal violation. His car backfired while speeding away, causing officers to think someone in the car had fired a gun.
Thirteen officers fired upon the car at the end of the chase, including Brelo, who prosecutors said stood on the car's hood when it was stopped and shot 15 times into the windshield. He told the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation that he thought he and his partner were being shot at.
No gun was ever found in the car. Russell and Williams were each shot more than 20 times.
Brelo was the only officer charged criminally because prosecutors said he intended to kill Russell, 43, and Williams, 30, alleging that he reloaded during the shooting barrage and that it was his final salvo that killed the couple.
O'Donnell ruled that Brelo's use of deadly force was constitutionally reasonable based on how the events unfolded.
"It was reasonable, despite knowing now that there was no gun in the car and he was mistaken about the origin of the gunshots," he said.
The verdict, which sparked peaceful protests in Cleveland, comes as residents await the completion of an investigation into the death of Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old who was fatally shot by a Cleveland police officer last year after he was seen holding what turned out to be a toy gun on a playground.
Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson and Police Chief Calvin Williams urged the protesters who gathered to remain peaceful. O'Donnell echoed similar sentiments before reading from his verdict.
"The verdict should be no cause for a civilized society to celebrate or riot," he said. "Whatever the outcome, two people are still dead and the defendant's life is forever changed."
Brelo will remain on unpaid suspension upon completion of a review by a critical incident committee, said Williams.
After the shooting, the U.S. Department of Justice conducted an investigation that determined the Cleveland Police Department engaged in a pattern of using excessive force and violating civil rights. The city and the department are now negotiating a reform-minded consent decree.
The U.S. Attorney's Office, the FBI and the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice said in a statement today they will review the testimony and evidence from the trial and "collaboratively determine what, if any, additional steps are available and appropriate given the requirements and limitations of the applicable laws in the federal judicial system."
The Associated Press contributed to this story.