CLEVELAND (AP) — A Cleveland police officer feared that his life and the lives of fellow officers were in danger when he fired the final shots of a barrage of police gunfire that killed two unarmed suspects, his attorney said Monday during opening statements in the patrolman's trial.
The tactics of Michael Brelo, 31, could be called into question given that Brelo exposed himself to danger when he stepped onto the hood of a beat-up Chevy Malibu to fire 15 rounds into the windshield of the suspects' vehicle, attorney Patrick D'Angelo said. But Brelo and 12 officers who shot a total of 137 rounds into the car in November 2012 had ample reason to believe that 43-year-old Timothy Russell and 30-year-old Malissa Williams were shooting at them, he said.
D'Angelo said he wasn't calling what Brelo and the other officers did that night heroic.
"They are simple, ordinary people who try to do the best they can and are put in very dangerous situations," he said.
Brelo, charged with voluntary manslaughter, is the only officer charged because prosecutors said he waited until after the initial salvo had ended to reload and discharge the last of the 49 rounds he fired that night. A judge will decide whether Brelo is guilty or innocent. He faces a maximum sentence of 25 years in prison if convicted.
Assistant Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Rick Bell revealed that experts have concluded that another officer fired three rounds during Brelo's 15-shot volley, something defense attorneys have argued in motions.
Bell said a medical examiner has concluded that Brelo fired "kill shots" into Russell and Williams and that they were still alive when Brelo fired from the top of a police cruiser and the trunk of the Malibu, striking Williams 11 times and Russell six times, when they were no longer a threat to anyone.
Brelo fired out of a sense of rage and vengeance after he and his partner became one of the first cars to join what would be a 19-mile chase on city streets and freeways with speeds reaching 100 mph, Bell said. The prosecutor criticized Brelo and others for violating departmental policies that required permission to chase a suspect vehicle. More than 100 Cleveland police officers in five dozen cars were involved in the chase at some point.
"His pursuit of 22 minutes described the final outcome," Bell said of Brelo. "He should have never been in that position to begin with."
D'Angelo argued that Officer Wilfredo Diaz, who fired the initial rounds after Russell drove the Malibu toward him, could have killed Russell and Williams. Those shots prompted other officers to begin firing because they believed Russell and Williams were shooting at them.
"These officers were scared to death," D'Angelo said. "They thought they were in a gun battle."