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CLEVELAND (AP) — Depending on who addressed the court, a patrolman charged in the deaths of two unarmed people in a 137-shot barrage of police gunfire was either a brutish killer or a selfless hero on the night of Nov. 29, 2012.
Attorneys gave closing arguments Tuesday in the voluntary manslaughter trial of Cleveland patrolman Michael Brelo. He faces a maximum sentence of 22 years in prison if convicted.
Thirteen officers fired at a car and its occupants — Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams — after a high-speed chase involving 62 police cruisers and more than 100 officers. It began when officers standing outside police headquarters mistook the sound of Russell's beat-up Chevrolet Malibu backfiring as a gunshot.
Only Brelo was charged criminally because prosecutors said he waited until the car had stopped and the pair was no longer a threat to fire his final 15 rounds into the windshield while standing on the hood of the Malibu.
A judge — not a jury — will decide Brelo's case. Judge John P. O'Donnell said Tuesday he probably won't issue a verdict before late next week.
Brelo's case will ultimately turn on constitutional issues: Did Brelo, as a police officer, have the right to shoot and kill Russell and Williams?
Prosecutor Sherry Royster said Brelo was supposed to neutralize any threat Russell and Williams presented, not "eliminate it."
"His actions showed that at that moment, his intent was to kill," Royster said. "He was knowingly trying to cause the death of Timothy and Malissa."
Prosecutors also said they didn't believe Brelo was being truthful when he told investigators 10 days after the shooting that he couldn't recall standing on the hood of the Malibu. A rookie officer who was one of the 13 shooters testified at trial that Brelo told him he was on the hood hours later.
Brelo did not testify at trial. He told investigators on Dec. 10, 2012, that he'd never been so afraid in all his life. Prosecutors on Tuesday questioned why a terrified Brelo would expose himself to harm by climbing on the hood of the Malibu if he thought Russell and Williams were shooting at police.
"It defies all logic," prosecutor Rick Bell said.
Defense attorneys said all the officers involved in the chase and shooting had probable cause to believe the occupants of the Malibu were a threat to public safety. Attorney Patrick D'Angelo said Russell's refusal to heed the dozens of police cars chasing him that night showed he was a danger.
"There was nothing stopping him until he used his car as a deadly weapon," D'Angelo said.
According to police accounts, Russell nearly struck an officer standing outside his cruiser at the end of the chase. The officer fired at the Malibu and other officers, who thought Russell and Williams were shooting at them, opened fire as well.
Brelo and his partner fired shots through the windshield of their cruiser when they saw headlights of the Malibu headed toward them while parked in a driveway that led to a school parking lot. Brelo then got out, fired more rounds from behind and on top of a cruiser, stepped onto the hood of the Malibu, loaded a fresh magazine and fired his final 15 rounds.
D'Angelo called Brelo's actions a "selfless and fearless act" that was intended to keep fellow officers safe. While other officers understandably took cover, Brelo took action, D'Angelo said.
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