The bench trial for
Michael Brelo began Monday with opening statements and testimonies.
Brelo is accused of voluntary manslaughter for his role in the deadly police chase and shooting in November 2012. Officers chased suspects Malissa Williams and Timothy Russell from Cleveland into East Cleveland before opening fire 137 times, killing the pair. Officer Brelo fired 49 of those shots.
Both victims had criminal records, but police never found a gun in their car or on either of them.
There are also two very different versions of the deadly shooting.
"There are two central issues in this case: that of causation and that of legal justification," said Brelo's lead defense attorney, Patrick D'Angelo.
In the courtroom, prosecutors showed never-before-seen dash camera video of the traffic stop before the shooting. This is the first public viewing of Officer John Jordan pulling over the car carrying Williams and Russell. He suspected them of having drugs, but they sped off and got away. Officer Jordan said Williams was acting strangely.
"He was concerned about the behavior of the passenger and said in his statement to BCI, the passenger was acting in a bizarre fashion," said D'Angelo.
Minutes later, the car sped past police headquarters and an officer reported he heard a shot. He jumped into his cruiser and the chase was on. That officer was not alone in thinking there was a gunshot.
"They felt they were duty-bound to stop the occupants of the motor vehicle, who had shot at the police," said D'Angelo.
It is important to the defense to prove that officers who participated in the chase heard about the gunshot report over police radio, and used that information to make a decision to enter the chase. Additionally, the officers involved continued to believe Williams and Russell were armed when the car was finally stopped.
"Officer Smolek said, in my heart of hearts, I believe that they were taking gunfire," said D'Angelo. "When Brelo gets out, your honor, the gunfire is coming right at him."
There was gunfire, then a pause.
"The threat was over at this point. The car had stopped, the shooting had stopped and the evidence will show that the defendant Brelo started it again," said Assistant Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Rick Bell.
The defense believes that officers who took part in the chase and shooting of Williams and Russell believed a gun fired near the justice center, and duty called officers to give chase to protect the public.
"The mindset of the police officers was if they are brazen enough to shoot at the police, what is the danger that they pose to the public?" explained D'Angelo.
The judge has said he wants to focus on the shooting scene and what officers did, specifically what Officer Brelo did.
"He had successfully left his car after shooting five or six times and went to the rear of 238. He was in a position of cover and safety behind that bumper. He should not have moved from that position," said Bell.
However, prosecutors believe there is plenty of blame to go around, with not all of it on Brelo.
"Supervisors, though as the state will show, lost control and Officer Brelo ignored his training and other officers lost their training," said Bell.
Prosecutors opened the first day of trial by calling Brelo a liar. They have painted a picture of Brelo similar to Rambo, jumping on the hoods and roofs of cars and shooting to kill. It is something defense attorney's bristle at.
"He jumped on the trunk of 238 not because he wanted to be Rambo, because he wanted to survive," said D'Angelo.
Brelo sat calmly as the case against him was laid out. Automatic Vehicle Locators, or "AVLs," were shown in court, depicting when cars joined the chase that fateful night, leading to a swarm where the chase ended in East Cleveland.
Prosecutors say that "swarm" is their point. They say the chase was over and Brelo was unjustified in firing 49 shots. Prosecutors will present a great deal of scientific evidence, but one piece may be problematic for them.
"All possible efforts were made to determine which bullets came from which guns in this case, but to no avail," said prosecuting attorney Erica Barnhill.
Several Cleveland City Council members, African-American community leaders and family members of the victims sat in the courtroom on the prosecution side.
Those who support Officer Brelo, including his family members, sat on the other side.