Judge bizarrely acquits Cleveland police officer of voluntary manslaughter

In a bizarre miscarriage of justice today, Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Judge John O’Donnell acquitted Officer Michael Brelo of two counts of voluntary manslaughter in the deaths of Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams, who were chased and gunned down by police after the vehicle in which they were riding accidentally backfired as they were driving past police headquarters. They were unarmed.

62 police vehicles participated in the ensuing 22 mile chase that reached speeds over 100 mph.

Thirteen officers, including Brelo, fired 137 shots into the vehicle. Russell had 23 bullet wounds and Williams had 24. Prosecutors said they only charged Brelo because he jumped up on the hood of the vehicle after it stopped and fired 15 shots through the windscreen into their bodies after they were no longer a threat, but still alive.

NBC reports,

[Judge] O’Donnell said that while he found beyond a reasonable doubt that Brelo caused at least one fatal wound to Williams’ chest, he couldn’t determine that the other fatal shots came from his gun.

“One or two other officers inflicted” the others, O’Donnell said, and therefore, he couldn’t find Brelo guilty of Williams’ death.

Judge O’Donnell also found that Brelo acted improperly when he jumped up on the hood of the car

Given these findings, I think he should have convicted Brelo of voluntary manslaughter for the death of Williams. If two or more people fire fatal shots (i.e., that would have caused death), each is guilty of killing the victim even if the ME can’t tell which shot actually killed the victim. That’s basic criminal law.

What do you think?

Here’s the judge’s 35 page decision.

To follow on Twitter: #Brelo

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Frederick Leatherman

Frederick Leatherman

I am a former law professor and felony criminal defense lawyer who practiced in state and federal courts for 30 years specializing in death penalty cases, forensics, and drug cases.

I taught criminal law, criminal procedure, law and forensics, and trial advocacy for three years after retiring from my law practice.

I also co-founded Innocence Project Northwest (IPNW) at the University of Washington School of Law in Seattle and recruited 40 lawyers who agreed to work pro bono, assisted by law students, representing 17 innocent men and women wrongfully convicted of sexually abusing their children in the notorious Wenatchee Sex Ring witch-hunt prosecutions during the mid 90s. All 17 were freed from imprisonment.


  1. May 23, 2015 at 3:15 pm

    Lurching toward Fascism in the United State of Oligarchy

  2. Shutter
    May 23, 2015 at 3:17 pm

    If cop immunity wasn’t part of the overall plan before, it sure as hell is now. A jerk stands on the hood of a car pumping so many bullets into the people inside that he has to take time out to reload and doesn’t even notice the corpses are probably smoking from all the impacts.

    But he’s got a badge. And a gun. And the people, or rather, the corpses he was shooting were black.

    He gets a hearing, a public judgment, and then he gets off with his life, his job, his wife, his kids, his house, his money and his pension.

    The victims get no hearing, no public judgement and then they are tried, convicted and executed.

    And still they wonder why we fear, distrust and increasingly hate the idea of having any kind of interaction with a badge and a gun.

  3. The Weeping Cheeto
    May 23, 2015 at 3:31 pm

    Quit it, cops.

  4. dubinsky
    May 23, 2015 at 4:09 pm

    I think that it could have gone either way and that there was nothing bizarre about finding reasonable doubt.

    of course, I’m not a defense attorney………but I seem to recall that most of them that I’ve met are pretty big fans of reasonable doubt….and some of them would even agree that it should extend to cops.

    anytime two people get shot to pieces by a bunch of cops and the cops shot them based on lousy information, I have a visceral feeling that someone should have to answer for it.

    but to single out this cop and send him up for voluntary manslaughter because he was cowboying at this clusterf3ck seems about as just as deciding that the driver deserved to be gunned down for running from the legal traffic stop and resisting arrest with a lunatic and dangerous run for it.

  5. Canyon2
    May 23, 2015 at 4:47 pm

    My only hope here after seeing the car that the couple was riding in is that the federal government steps in and files a Civil Rights violation against the cop.
    This is getting way out of hand as far as police looking at folks as open season especially on Black people.

  6. Human Relations 1932
    May 23, 2015 at 5:09 pm

    My wife encountered a currently wanted murderer at a a local covenience store a few days ago. She recognized him from a news report. She chose not to call the police. I supported her in that decision. Nothing good comes out of dealing with the so-called “justice” system. Let the pigs do their own work. Good luck, America. You’ll stand or fall on your own two legs. We’ll have jack squat to do with it.

  7. TalkingWarrior
    May 23, 2015 at 5:45 pm

    This is a hard call for me.

    My first thought on reading your comment is that the cops and prosecutors will just frame some other poor rube for the murder.

    My second thought – that the guy your wife saw is just the poor rube they’ve already decided to, or hope to, frame.

  8. May 23, 2015 at 5:48 pm

    Part of it is hiring former Afghan and Iraq vets who every brown face in the city as an enemy out to kill them

    It has truly become a shoot first ask questions later policing where the state will back their murders in the courts. Thus dispensing “Justice”

    We are becoming or have become a nation with two parallel Justice systems

    Get out of jail free if you can afford the attorney. Summary execution if you can’t

  9. dubinsky
    May 23, 2015 at 5:49 pm

    yup. your wisdom is just awesome…. and you’re right to be all self-satisfied.

  10. Shutter
    May 23, 2015 at 5:50 pm

    -Nothing good comes out of dealing with the so-called “justice” system.-

    Sad but true. A person who volunteers to help the Just-Us system is as likely to be scapegoated by the cops, the D.A. and the media as they are to be hunted down and snuffed out as a snitch by the perp or his friends. If you choose to flip the coin it comes up tails each way.

    I’d personally like to see the cops disarmed except for special squads. The ordinary cop on the beat riding around in his black and white would be a whole lot more considerate of others were he without his piece strapped to his hip. And ankle. But given the psychotic level of violence of everyone involved these days.. it’d be a slaughterhouse.

  11. TalkingWarrior
    May 23, 2015 at 6:17 pm

    When did cops become so dumb that they can’t tell a gunshot from a backfire?

    When their ranks began filling up with former members of the US’ all-volunteer military?

  12. Hugh
    May 23, 2015 at 7:03 pm

    I agree with Shutter. We are seeing the results of a culture of police impunity. If anyone else committed these murders, the media and the judicial system would be railing against their heinous nature and senseless brutality. As it is, the police, prosecutors, and judges are greenlighting these activities. In Feguson, it was the prosectuor, here the judge, and the police, everywhere.

  13. dubinsky
    May 23, 2015 at 8:35 pm

    hey, bobby, don’t most of those vets themselves have brown faces?

  14. Andy_Lewis
    May 23, 2015 at 8:35 pm

    And here’s a little ditty that sums up the whole situation:

  15. May 23, 2015 at 9:11 pm

    Mebbe so. But a lot of poor and rural whites joined up too

  16. dubinsky
    May 23, 2015 at 9:20 pm

    and being white must mean that you’re no damn good, Bobby?

    what the hell happened to you that turned you into a racist?

  17. OmniaQuaerite
    May 24, 2015 at 12:55 am

    I think he’s got the right idea -let them do their own dirty work.

  18. JamesJoyce
    May 24, 2015 at 9:10 am

    Police kill based on a complete misreading of facts and reality, act like animals killing unarmed citizens that were not a threat to life or property. Now those responsible for death are acquitted? This Judge is quite screwed up! Guess he failed to recognize the real threat. He speaks of riots in a civilized society but fails to recognize the value of lives in a blood letting of two citizens, now dead?

    How can it be that cops acted in a lawful way in this case Judge? Have you lost your mind???

    Car’s backfire was gunshot?????

    What year is this 1935, in Germany?

  19. JamesJoyce
    May 24, 2015 at 11:03 am

    Call it the “Nuremberg Effect,” post 911. Any defense attorney should see it coming from miles away.

    That is, if a defense lawyer has a living viable client to defend?