CLEVELAND (AP) — The circumstances of a police shooting trial unfolding in a Cleveland courtroom share similarities to a high-speed chase and fatal shooting in Tennessee as well as the matters of law on which the Cleveland case will be decided: When does a threat to officers' lives end?
Friday marked the completion of the second week of trial for a Cleveland police officer charged with voluntary manslaughter in the deaths of two unarmed motorists after a high-speed chase in November 2012.
Patrolman Michael Brelo fired 49 of the 137 rounds the night driver Timothy Russell and passenger Malissa Williams were killed, prosecutors say, with the last 15 rounds fired down through the windshield while standing on the hood of Russell's beat-up Chevy Malibu.
A judge — not a jury — will decide whether Brelo, 31, killed Russell and Williams while under the influence of sudden rage or passion, the legal definition of voluntary manslaughter in Ohio. But Judge John P. O'Donnell must also decide whether prosecutors proved it was Brelo alone who killed Russell and Williams.
Thirteen officers fired at Russell's car that night but only Brelo was charged criminally because, prosecutors contend, Brelo fired his final rounds when Russell and Williams were alive but incapacitated and no longer a threat. Deputy coroners have testified they cannot definitively say which shots killed the pair or which officers fired them.
Defense attorneys have argued that it doesn't matter, that Brelo's final shots were justified because the threat didn't end until he reached into the Malibu and removed the keys from the ignition. They've also argued, and testimony from experts have confirmed, that Brelo was not the only officer firing during what is being referred to at trial as a second barrage of bullets that came 4 seconds after the first.
The Cleveland case recalls a July 2004 high-speed chase that began in West Memphis, Arkansas, and ended with the fatal shooting of two people inside a car in neighboring Memphis, Tennessee. Three West Memphis officers were charged with reckless homicide in the death of a female passenger described as the driver's girlfriend. She was shot once in the back of the head after her boyfriend knocked two cruisers out of his way and tried to drive off after the chase was thought to have ended. While the boyfriend was shot 17 times, prosecutors did not file charges in his death.
The officers entered a pretrial diversion program and charges against them were eventually dismissed.
Federal civil rights lawsuits were filed in both the Cleveland and Memphis shootings. The city of Cleveland quickly settled with the families of Russell and Williams, paying them a total of $3 million. It took a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 2012 to end a lawsuit filed against six West Memphis officers, including the three shooters. Their attorneys argued that the officers were not liable for damages because of qualified immunity, meaning their actions occurred while doing their jobs.
Brelo's attorneys unsuccessfully made the same argument to O'Donnell in a motion to have the officer's charges dismissed.
Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Tim McGinty mentioned the Supreme Court case during a news conference when he announced Brelo's indictment. He quoted from Justice Samuel Alito Jr.'s opinion that said officers can continue firing their weapons until they believe a threat has ended. The prosecutor then added that Alito also wrote in his opinion that it would have been different if the officers had continued firing when they knew the threat was clearly over, something Judge O'Donnell must decide in the Cleveland case.
The court voted 9-0 that the West Memphis officers were entitled to qualified immunity and should not be held liable.