The trial of a former Cleveland police officer charged with voluntary manslaughter for the shooting deaths of two people featured testimony from a number of expert witnesses this week. Michael Brelo, 31, has been accused by prosecutors of manslaughter due to a 2012 incident in which he and 12 of his fellow officers fired 137 shots into a 1979 Chevrolet Malibu, killing occupants Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams, both of whom were unarmed.
Brelo has been charged with manslaughter for firing 49 of those rounds into Russell’s vehicle, some of which were fired from the hood of the car after Brelo allegedly jumped on it for a better vantage point. Brelo and his fellow officers have maintained in their recollection of the events that they felt they were in danger and reacted appropriately considering the circumstances. To bolster their case, prosecutors called to the stand experts in lighting and audio to reconstruct the incident, demonstrate that Brelo and the other officers should have been able to better assess the low-risk nature of the situation, and support the argument that the officers acted improperly and criminally.
Lighting Expert Witness Testifies in Trial of Cleveland Police Officer
Earlier this week, James Benya of Benya Burnett Consultancy took the stand as a lighting expert witness to help reconstruct the scene of the shooting and support the prosecution’s argument that it should have been apparent to the officers that Russell and Williams did not pose a threat to their safety. Benya is an engineer with more than 40 years of lighting experience called to testify about the lighting behind Heritage Middle School on the evening in question. Benya considered the street lighting, time of day, placement of the vehicles, and weather conditions in his testimony to the court.
While on the stand, Benya noted that the cloud cover prohibited the moon from providing any source of light, but emphasized visibility was still possible due to the better-than-average lighting conditions of the middle school parking lot where the shooting took place. Benya also noted that Russell’s light blue Malibu was parked between two street lights when officers opened fire. Benya also supplemented his expert testimony with a recreation of the scene using pictures taken at the same time of night as the shooting under similar weather conditions. Benya’s recreation included not only the static source of light provided by the street lamps, but also the dynamic illumination provided by lights on police vehicles.
On the strength of Benya’s testimony, prosecutors submitted the images from his recreation into evidence in an effort to show the court that it is possible to see into a parked vehicle in conditions identical to the ones faced by officers on the night of the shooting.
Prosecutors in Cleveland Police Trial Turn to Audio Expert Witness
Shortly after Benya’s stepped down from the stand, prosecutors called Robert C. Maher, head of the electrical and computer engineering department at Montana State University, to the stand as an audio expert witness. Maher was asked to listen to a recording of the incident taken by the Bratenahl Police Department radio from the dashboard camera of one of the police cars. Maher analyzed the video in 2014, and told the court that 15 of the final 18 shots came in rapid succession and were fired from the same gun. The interval and sound of the shots supported this conclusion, and the court heard the audio as part of Maher’s expert testimony.
According to prosecutors, the 15 shots were fired from Brelo’s weapon as he stood on the hood of the car and fired in at Russell and Williams. Brelo’s defense attorneys challenged Maher about the ambient noise that could impact a sound analysis – such as police sirens, distance, and other gun shots – but Maher maintained that the shots had come from the same gun despite factors that could influence his ability to make that determination.
Maher’s testimony was bolstered by identical findings by two other audio expert witnesses: Bruce Koenig, an expert in audio and visual forensics who worked for the FBI for 24 years, and Steven Beck, an audio expert. Both Koenig and Beck testified that 15 of the final 18 shots were fired from the same gun, a conclusion they supported by pointing to the sound and succession of the shots. Prosecutors will continue the case next week.