A Cleveland police officer was found not guilty on Saturday in the shooting deaths of an unarmed black man and a woman after a high-speed car chase in 2012, one in a series of cases that have raised questions over police conduct and race relations in the United States.
Judge John O'Donnell said Officer Michael Brelo, 31, acted reasonably in shooting the two suspects while standing on the hood of their surrounded car and firing multiple rounds through the windshield. Brelo, who was among a group of officers who fired on the car, was found not guilty of voluntary manslaughter and aggravated assault.
The trial, which began on April 6, took place at a time when U.S. law enforcement is under close scrutiny for the use of lethal force against minority groups. It followed a series of high-profile deaths of unarmed black men in confrontations with white police officers in various states across the country, prompting sometimes violent demonstrations.
The two people who were killed, Malissa Williams and Timothy Russell, were black and Brelo, a former Marine, is white.
"Brelo was acting in conditions difficult for even experienced officers to imagine," O'Donnell said during the roughly hour-long reading of the verdict.
"He was in a strange place at night surrounded by gunfire, sirens and flashing bulbs. Brelo did not fire too quickly or at a person who was clearly unarmed or unable to run him over. He did not fire at somebody running away," he added.
A small crowd of demonstrators protested the verdict outside the Cleveland courthouse, chanting "No justice, no peace," while police in riot gear patrolled the crowd. Reaction on Twitter was swift, with many people commenting that they were bewildered by the judge's reasoning.
"This is becoming too repetitive for me now. There's no way these courts can legitimately let these acts dance off scot-free," wrote Jacky, or @jackyalcine.
A statement from the U.S. Justice Department said its civil rights division, the U.S. attorney's office and the FBI were reviewing testimony and evidence from the state trial and would determine if federal action would be taken.
Brelo's attorney, Patrick D'Angelo, slammed the prosecution for pursuing the charges against his client.
"The prosecution in this case spared no expense and in fact was ruthless," D'Angelo said, speaking after the verdict. "It was classically a case of David vs Goliath."
The trial came just months after the Justice Department found the Cleveland Police Department systematically engages in excessive use of force against civilians. It launched the investigation after a series of high-profile police use-of-force incidents, including the Brelo case.
The report, issued in December, found that supervisors tolerated and, in some cases, endorsed use of unnecessary or unreasonable force and officers reported too little supervision or guidance.
In the days before the report was released, a Cleveland police officer shot dead a 12-year-old boy who was carrying what turned out to be a replica gun that typically fires plastic pellets. The boy, Tamir Rice, was shot twice by Cleveland police responding to a 911 emergency call about a man with a gun outside a recreation center. Rice died the next day.
That case is still under investigation.
Ahead of Saturday's verdict, Cleveland officials braced for demonstrations, concerned about flashes of violence that erupted in Baltimore and Ferguson, Missouri, after fatal shootings of unarmed black men.
Six officers involved in the Baltimore incident in April have been indicted, while a Missouri grand jury decided against bringing charges against the officer who fatally shot Michael Brown in Ferguson last August.
In Cleveland, Brelo, who waived his right to a jury trial, would have faced up to 11 years in prison had he been convicted.
Five other police supervisors were indicted on misdemeanor dereliction of duty charges in the deaths of Williams and Timothy Russell. They are scheduled to go on trial in July. Sixty-four officers were disciplined and Cleveland paid the families of Williams and Russell $1.5 million each to settle a wrongful death lawsuit.
Experts testifying for Brelo said Williams and Russell died early in a barrage of gunfire. In his decision, the judge found Brelo, who climbed on the car's hood after it had been cornered by patrol cars following the chase, had acted reasonably in the belief that the suspects were shooting at him and other officers.
The chase, which started in downtown Cleveland after reports of gunfire coming from the car, went through multiple cities at speeds topping 90 mph (145 kph) 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.