A Cleveland officer was found not guilty on Saturday in the shooting deaths of two unarmed suspects in a 137-shot barrage of police gunfire after a high-speed chase.
The judge's verdict for Michael Brelo, 31, comes after a four-week bench trial on two counts of voluntary manslaughter in the deaths of Timothy Russell, 43, and Malissa Williams, 30, on Nov. 29, 2012. Brelo was also found not guilty on two counts of felonious assault.
Thirteen Ohio officers fired at the suspects' car that night in a school parking lot. Yet only Brelo was charged criminally. Prosecutors said he waited until the vehicle had stopped and the occupants were no longer a threat to step onto the hood and fire 15 rounds into the windshield.
Brelo faced 22 years in prison if convicted.
The trial, which began on April 6, was held amid increased focus on the killings of unarmed black men by white police officers in various states across the U.S. The two people who were killed, Williams and Russell, were black and Brelo, a former Marine, is white.
Following the decision to acquit Brelo, about 200 people walked in a mock funeral procession that had already been planned to mark six months since the shooting death of Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old black boy killed by a white cop while playing with a pellet gun in a Cleveland park.
The procession took place near the home of the Cuyahoga County prosecutor who lost the case against Brelo.
Carol Steiner, one of the demonstrators who participated in the procession, said Saturday’s verdict was "a very bad precedent for Cleveland," before adding "police murder people of color and [do] not have to serve one day in jail."
In a statement following the verdict, Ohio Gov. John Kasich asked the public to respect the court’s decision.
"The court has spoken and we must respect its decision. Our statewide initiative to improve the way that communities and police work together, with better training, oversight and cooperation, is a model for the country, but we must stay at it."
Experts testifying for Brelo said Williams and Russell died early in a barrage of gunfire and Brelo had acted reasonably in the belief that they were shooting at him and other officers. Defense attorneys said ballistic experts could not determine who or how many officers fired the final shots.
The chase, which started in downtown Cleveland after reports of gunfire coming from the car, went through multiple cities at speeds topping 90 mph and ended with 13 Cleveland police officers firing 137 rounds.
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.
Five police supervisors were indicted on misdemeanor dereliction of duty charges and are scheduled to go on trial in July. Sixty-four officers have also been disciplined in the case.
Cleveland paid the families of Williams and Russell $1.5 million each to settle a wrongful death lawsuit.
Al Jazeera and wire services