For much of our time on the grand jury, the Tamir Rice case hung over us. There were three grand juries sitting simultaneously during the summer, so we began the summer assuming that there was at any rate a one in three chance that the County Prosecutor would bring the case to us. That the summer would pass without the case being brought seemed unimaginable. Officer Timothy Loehmann shot Tamir Rice on November 22, 2014. He died the next morning. Surely eight or nine months would be plenty of time to investigate and prepare the case.
Actually, two other cases involving allegations of excessive force used by police against African American victims also loomed for us this summer. The first, the trial of Officer Michael Brelo, accused of voluntary manslaughter in the shooting deaths of Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams in late 2012 was already ongoing when our term began. The second, the case of Tanisha Anderson, a 37-year old African American woman who suffered from bipolar disorder and who died in the hands of Cleveland police after her family had called for help because of her disoriented behavior, like the Rice case, had yet to emerge from the County Prosecutor’s office.
The deaths of Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams occurred on November 29, 2012 at the end of a police chase that began in downtown Cleveland and ended in a one-sided shoot-out at a school parking lot in East Cleveland. The chase began after a plain clothes officer, suspecting that Russell was looking to purchase drugs tried to pull him over for a turn signal violation. As he fled the scene, officers heard what they believed to be a gunshot and reported that they had been shot at from Russell’s car. In all likelihood they had heard a backfire from Russell’s 1979 Chevy Malibu, which a witness subsequently stated suffered from frequent backfires. No weapon was found in the car, and none of the pursuing officers saw a gun tossed from the car during the ensuing chase, which involved a total of 62 police cars. A crack pipe was found in the car, which along with Russell’s and Williams’ many prior encounters with the law may explain their flight. At the parking lot, prompted by the perception that Russell had a gun thirteen officers, including Michael Brelo, let loose a volley of 137 gunshots into the car. After all other officers had stopped firing, Brelo jumped onto the hood of Russell’s car and fired an additional fifteen shots at Russell and Williams. The charges against Brelo for voluntary manslaughter and felonious assault related to these last fifteen shots, on the theory that at the point when the remaining officers had stopped shooting it was no longer reasonable for Brelo to continue. Brelo’s attorneys moved to have the case tried by a judge in order to avoid a jury trial. The case was assigned to Judge John O’Donnell.
City leaders were gripped by fear that an acquittal would lead to mass rioting. As a verdict approached, local schools closed their after school programs, and local employers readied themselves to implement emergency plans. We were informed that Judge O’Donnell would give the Court’s administrative judge thirty minutes advanced notice that the verdict was about to be announced (but not an indication of what the verdict would be). We, and presumably other people working at the Justice Center, would then be evacuated. The near hysteria seemed baseless. I had not been concerned about getting home from work if we were sitting on the day that the verdict was announced, and none of the other grand jurors seemed concerned.
In the end, Judge O’Donnell obviated the need for significant evacuation planning by announcing the verdict early on a Saturday morning when the Justice Center was quiet and Cleveland’s downtown streets were more or less empty. He acquitted on all counts. While he acknowledged that several of Brelo’s last fifteen shots could have been fatal, he concluded that given all the prior shots (including those from Brelo’s gun) there was no way to conclude that any of Brelo’s last fifteen shots had killed either Russell or Williams. The Prosecutor had not argued the lesser included offense of attempted manslaughter, so Judge O’Donnell did not have to consider whether or not Brelo could have been guilty of attempt. Perhaps most troubling about the opinion was Judge O’Donnell’s conclusion that Brelo had a reasonable fear of harm at the moment when he abandoned the cover of his zone car and exposed himself first by jumping on the trunk of his car and then by jumping on the hood of Russell’s car.
Cleveland did not burn. The feared riots did not occur. On the whole the protests were peaceful, with a very few instances of protestor behavior leading to criminal charges. Demonstrators that Saturday night were met, however, by police in tight military formation who drove the demonstrators into confined spaces and then, in at least one instance onto a bus pulled up in an alley for a mass arrest. Clearly, the Cleveland Police Department was going to keep the bars and restaurants of East 4th Street and West 6th Street, open and operating, and keep the patrons protected from unpleasant chants and protest.
Graffitied Commentary at the Justice Center following the Brelo Decision