The Reason Why Cleveland Did Not Burn: The Strange and Painful Case of Michael Brelo

 In Domestic, opinion, Politics

The Reason Why Cleveland Did Not Burn: The Strange and Painful Case of Michael Brelo

A Case Primer

The case against Cleveland Police officer Michael Brelo began two years ago, when a beat up Chevrolet drove by the Cleveland Police headquarters and officers outside thought they heard someone in the car fire a gun at them.  What followed was a wild chase of the car occupied by 43 year old Timothy Russell, and 30 year old Melissa Williams.

cleveland did not burn

137 rounds into this car, killing 2


At one point, over 59 marked and unmarked police units followed the pair over several Cleveland suburbs.  The chase concluded in East Cleveland, where 137 shots were fired at the suspects by 13 officers.  Both suspects were dead and no gun was found inside the car.

Over the course of the investigation, Officer Michael Brelo was the only officer indicted for the deaths, as a result of what investigators referred to as “Rambo-like” actions by Brelo.  When the suspects’ car was surrounded, the driver rammed a couple of the police units and Officer Brelo left the safety of his cover (behind one of the units), climbing on top of the suspects’ car and firing 15 shots before the cease fire was called.

The Trial

The failure of the prosecution in this case really rested on the fact that the judicial process quickly became politicized.  Officer Michael Brelo waved his right to a trial by a jury of his peers and instead decided to go with a bench trial.  Immediately, the Cuyahoga County Prosecutor, Bill McGinty issued an inflammatory statement referring to Brelo’s choice of a bench trial as indicative that a jury including any number of African-American members would indict the officer.

The president of the Cleveland Police Patrolmen’s Association, Steve Loomis fired back with doubly-inflamed statements calling Mr. McGinty “a goldfish swimming around in a piranha bowl” and telling him to “prove his case or sit down and shut up.”  This exchange escalated and monopolized the local news headlines for much of the indictment/pre-trial months.

The circus

Suddenly, what could have been an objective trial turned into a circus affair which did not include the dramatis personae (persons of the drama), as the media quickly followed suit with endless coverage and interviews of the verbal war between the County Prosecutors Office and the Cleveland Police Patrolmen’s Association.

Some people speculate that the veracity of the County Prosecutor’s statements were aimed as a political strategy, as experts think he is bound to run for Mayor of Cleveland some day and is in desperate need of the African-American vote for those purposes.

As for the President of the Cleveland Police Patrolmen’s Association’s statements, one can also interpret them as political posturing or bravado.  Either way, both institutions ran into the media limelight in complete disregard for the impartiality of the judicial process.

Beyond the circus atmosphere, the prosecution team followed a flawed strategy from the start.  Their argument almost exclusively hitched their case on ballistic testing.  Since 137 shots were fired, but only one policeman was charged with voluntary manslaughter, they needed to prove beyond reasonable doubt that the bullets that killed Timothy Russell and Melissa Williams came from Michael Brelo’s gun.


The pros attempted to prove their case- newsnet5 photo


Lack of real proof and a bad attitude

After lengthy testimony by both ballistic experts and medical examiners relating to bullet trajectory and penetration, the prosecution rested without definite proof that the deadly projectiles came from the officer charged with the crime.

On the “lesser” charge of aggravated assault as related to breaching of Fourth Amendment rights, the prosecution again rested their argument on the fact that Officer Brelo had acted “Rambo-like” and his proximity to the victims (he was standing on the hood of the car firing his gun) was proof enough that he had violated Fourth Amendment clauses against a citizen’s right to be “secure in their persons.”

Officer Michael Brelo’s defense immediately asked Judge John P. O’Donnell for a dismissal of the charges since the prosecution had not proven beyond reasonable doubt any of the charges.  Judge O’Donnell refused and the trial continued its path to acquittal.

While the defense was in the middle of its closing arguments, the Director of Community Relations for the City of Cleveland, Blaine Griffin tweeted out an inflammatory statement about whether or not Cleveland “should burn like Ferguson and Baltimore” if the verdict came back as not guilty.  Griffin was verbally “reprimanded,” but Mayor Frank Jackson refused to dismiss or penalize him.  It is hard to comprehend why a city official would venture to put out such an inflammatory statement if not to continue to fan the flames of distrust and anger among the community.

The Aftermath

On Saturday, Judge John P. O’Donnell read the verdict to captivated audiences.  Sounding very much like a politician, Judge O’Donnell read statements that seemed to sway from conviction to acquittal at every turn of the almost one full hour reading.

While he appeased the African-American community by over-stating the veracity of his examination, he also placated the supporters on the side of the officer by stating that he did not intend to make Michael Brelo an example to make up for other judicial discrepancies around the nation (Ferguson and Baltimore).

He disagreed with the medical examiner’s testimony about the time of death after initial impact by the bullets on both victims.  Judge O’Donnell accelerated his reading of the verdict in a rather abrupt way when he explained in detail his concern for the lack of proof on the aggravated assault charge.  It was clear then that Officer Michael Brelo was to be acquitted.  His closing statements declaring the officer “not guilty on all charges” came like the bolt of lightning with no further commentary, and a weeping Michael Brelo was escorted out of the courtroom ending the overall tragedy of the trial.


Michael Brelo at the reading of the verdict- Fox8 news photo

The Media’s Reaction

Deep down inside, one must wonder what the motivation of the media really is.  All of the local coverage in Cleveland seemed awkwardly disappointing in tone.  The natural bias to keep viewers watching appeared as trying to keep the community from violence yet instigating and condemning the judicial system for failing to convict.

The night after the verdict came out, 71 protesters were arrested and charged with misdemeanor charges, most of which spent the weekend in jail.  The protest then quickly turned to trying to get the protesters’ charges dismissed.  Subsequent protests have yielded little confrontation, as the police still remain on a low-visibility posture to avoid confrontation.

The national media did not follow the case at any considerable length until the verdict was read.  All of a sudden, ABC, CBS, CNN, NBC, FOX and MSNBC, among others, acted as if they had been on top of the story from the beginning.  From Saturday morning, May 23rd when the verdict was read, to Tuesday, May 26th nothing much happened until the announcement was made by the Mayor of Cleveland, Frank Jackson and representatives from the Department of Justice that the Cleveland Police Department had agreed to “sweeping and progressive” changes to their policing procedures and policies.

Critics find the agreement being announced on Tuesday morning as nothing more than political opportunism by a city administration under fire and the Federal government using the incident to gain an upper hand of power in local matters.

With the investigation on the police shooting of 12 year old Tamir Rice by Cleveland Police for waving a realistic looking air gun at a local park coming to a close, the hope of the many social activists groups instigating for violence and the media’s unquenchable thirst for the sensational might still yet be fulfilled.


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