Cleveland police officer's trial on fatal shootings nears end

Cleveland police officer Michael Brelo (C) sits during his manslaughter trial in Cleveland, Ohio April 6, 2015. REUTERS/Tony Dejak/Pool

By Kim Palmer CLEVELAND (Reuters) - A Cuyahoga County judge will soon decide whether a Cleveland police officer is guilty of voluntary manslaughter in the fatal shooting of two unarmed suspects after a long, high-speed chase in November 2012. Closing arguments are set for Tuesday in the trial of Officer Michael Brelo, 31, before Judge John O'Donnell in the deaths of Malissa Williams and Timothy Russell. Brelo, who waived his right to a jury trial, could face three to 11 years in prison if convicted. The judge has told attorneys they should not expect a verdict before May 15. The trial, which began April 6, has unfolded as police-involved deaths of unarmed black men in Missouri, New York, South Carolina, Maryland and other states have raised questions about police use of deadly force, especially against minorities. Williams and Russell were black and Brelo, a Marine who served in Iraq, is white. The chase, which started in downtown Cleveland after reports that there was gunfire coming from Russell's car, went through multiple cities at speeds topping 90 mph and ended with 13 Cleveland police officers firing 137 rounds. Prosecutors have said Brelo fired 49 of those rounds, delivering the final and fatal shots standing on the hood of Russell's car and firing through the windshield after it was surrounded in an East Cleveland school parking lot and the threat had passed. Russell was struck 24 times and Williams 23 times. No weapon was found in the car or along the route, and a forensic mechanic testified that the car, a 1979 Chevrolet Malibu, was prone to backfiring. Defense attorneys have said ballistic experts could not determine who or how many officers fired the final shots. Experts testifying for Brelo said Williams and Russell died early in the barrage of gunfire and the officer acted reasonably with the belief they were shooting at him and other officers. Five police supervisors were indicted on misdemeanor dereliction of duty charges and are scheduled to go on trial in July. Sixty-four officers were disciplined. Cleveland paid the families of Williams and Russell $1.5 million each to settle a wrongful death lawsuit. Afterward, Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson asked the U.S. Justice Department to investigate the department. The Justice Department found last year that Cleveland police routinely used excessive force. The city has been working with community and faith-based leaders to deal with any possible reaction to a verdict. (Reporting by Kim Palmer; Editing by David Bailey and Ted Botha)