At the Hands of Persons Unknown: The Verdict in the Michael Brelo Case
I cannot turn away or close my eyes to what I beheld on Saturday as I watched the verdict in the Michael Brelo case being rendered by Judge P. O’Donnell in Cleveland. The nearly hour-long justification for exonerating Officer Brelo on all counts was bone chilling to behold. In every respect, it amounted to a judicial justification for state-sanctioned lynching.
I don’t use the word “lynching” metaphorically. I use it because so many characteristics of historical lynching are replicated in this case.
Lynching can be defined as an extrajudicial killing by a group of people who seek to punish an alleged transgressor and/or intimidate a minority group. Between 1877 and 1950, nearly 4,000 men and women were lynched by white people in America and the vast majority of the victims were black. The alleged crimes often proved to be unfounded and the ‘punishments’ inflicted in these acts of racial terror were diabolically brutalizing in their use of ‘excessive force.’ Nevertheless, the white instigators and witnesses believed the ‘punishment’ was justified because of their judgment that the victim posed an ‘imminent threat.’
Despite the fact that often hundreds, if not thousands, of white people witnessed lynchings, only an infinitesimal number of perpetrators were ever arrested, much less convicted. The so-called investigations by law enforcement officials always resulted in the same verdict: the lynching occurred “at the hands of persons unknown.”
No one was held accountable. The message to white America was clear: you may perpetrate these horrific acts with impunity.
Let’s review the facts of the case against Officer Brelo. In November 2012, a car with two black passengers – Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams – backfired. Police mistook the backfire for a gunshot which resulted in a 22-mile chase that involved more than 100 officers and speeds of over 100 miles an hour. That chase ended in a school parking lot where 13 officers, Brelo being one of them, riddled the car and the bodies of Russell and Williams with a total of 137 rounds. Officer Brelo fired 49 of those rounds after exiting his car. Midway in his firing, he jumped onto the hood of the car and shot downward into the car’s windshield at least 15 times. The officers later testified that they believed the occupants were armed, but no gun was found in the car.
Officer Brelo was found not guilty by Judge O’Donnell on the charge of manslaughter (knowingly causing the deaths of the Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams) and the lesser charge of felonious assault. With regard to manslaughter, Judge O’Donnell concluded that it was impossible to determine definitively which bullets proved to be the lethal “straw that broke the camel’s back” (yes, he used that phrase).
In effect, Judge O’Donnell declared that the deaths of Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams occurred at the hands of persons unknown.
With regard to felonious assault, Judge O’Donnell concurred with the defense that, even though 100 rounds had already been fired into the car, Officer Brelo was justified in firing from the hood of the car because he had “an objectively reasonable perception that the Malibu and its inhabitants posed an imminent threat to him and the other officers.”
How in the world could it be reasonable that two people trapped in a car, surrounded by 13 officers who had fired 100 rounds, still posed an imminent threat?
Judge O’Donnell offered these explanations:
- Brelo had heard other officers shout that the occupants probably had loaded weapons;
- Russell had travelled over 100 miles an hour during the chase, ignoring traffic lights, and had slammed into a police car in the parking lot;
- By the end of the chase, Brelo was in a part of the city “unfamiliar to him,” and the entrance to the parking lot was a “dusty, dirty area” obscuring his vision;
- Brelo thought he saw both people in the car holding something black in their hands;
- Brelo acted in difficult conditions, with flashing lights and gunfire, which he described “as worse than being under attack from rockets and mortars while serving as a Marine in Iraq.”
Although Judge O’Donnell acknowledged that it is now known there was no gun in the car and Officer Brelo was mistaken about the origin of the gunshots, he declared that “it is Brelo’s perception of a threat that matters.” And that perception was justified because “the car was still running and to Brelo’s observation the occupants were still moving.” In effect, Judge O’Donnell blamed the victims for the their own deaths and exonerated Officer Brelo’s irrational fear and excessive use of violence.
“In the past ten years, there have been 5,236 police shootings, including non-fatal shootings. Of that total, only 21 officers have been convicted…That means an officer who shoots a civilian has .4% chance of being charged and convicted of a crime. Less than half of one percent chance. The numbers speak for themselves as evidence of a larger problem.”
How long will we as a nation allow this state-sanctioned violence to continue unchecked? How often must we witness perpetrators being exonerated while the unarmed victims are found guilty of being black? How much ‘proof’ does white America require to recognize that our justice system needs radical transformation — so that chokeholds, shooting fleeing suspects in the back, and firing 137 rounds into a parked car will no longer be sanctioned as a “constitutionally reasonable response”?
Once again, in Cleveland, the legacy of lynching was made manifest. Once again, no law enforcement officer was held accountable for an unspeakably excessive use of force in the deaths of unarmed black citizens. Once again, the message to police officers is clear: you may perpetrate these horrific acts with impunity.
Melanie S. Morrison, Ph.D., M.Div., is a white woman passionate about racial justice. She is founder and Executive Director of Allies for Change, a network of anti-oppression educators based in Michigan. For the past 20 years, she has led Doing Our Own Work, an intensive anti-racism program for white people who seek to deepen their commitment to confronting racism and white privilege. She believes it is possible to grow ever more aware of the reality of injustice without surrendering our capacity for compassion, joy, and hope. She is working on a new book with the working title Murder on Shades Mountain: The Legal Lynching of Willie Peterson and the Struggle for Racial Justice in Jim Crow Birmingham.