CLEVELAND — Five white Cleveland police supervisors accused of failing to stop a chase that ended with a 137-shot barrage of police gunfire and the deaths of two black suspects were charged Thursday with misdemeanors in the predominantly black suburb where the shooting occurred.
East Cleveland Prosecutor Willa Hemmons said they are the same dereliction of duty charges that a county grand jury indicted the supervisors on in May 2014. The supervisors are scheduled to go on trial July 27 before the same judge who acquitted a white officer on manslaughter charges in the Nov. 29, 2012, deaths of Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams.
With the same charges pending in two courts, it's unclear to the supervisors' attorneys what will happen next.
"This thing's still very much up in the air as far as we're concerned," said defense attorney David Grant.
Defense attorneys have surmised that county Prosecutor Tim McGinty orchestrated the change of venue to East Cleveland. Hemmons said she approached county prosecutors after the acquittal of patrolman Michael Brelo in May about filing charges against the supervisors.
"I thought it was appropriate that we have an opportunity to put it in a venue where the people most directly impacted could be vindicated," Hemmons said Thursday, adding that the lives of East Cleveland residents were endangered during the chase and shooting.
McGinty has said the supervisors should be prosecuted in East Cleveland because Russell and Williams would still be alive had the officers ended the 22-mile-long chase involving more than 100 police officers and 60 cars before it reached that city.
The same team that's been working on the case for more than a year will prosecute the case in East Cleveland with Hemmons acting as co-counsel. The city and county made an agreement to share resources. East Cleveland is one of the poorest cities in Ohio, its finances overseen by a state commission.
Susan Gragel, an attorney for one of the supervisors, said Thursday that the change of venue "appears to be racially motivated."
The lone judge in East Cleveland Municipal Court is black. If the officers stand trial in East Cleveland and choose to have their case decided by a jury, which appears unlikely, the jury pool would consist of a population that is 93 percent black.
McGinty interjected race into the prosecution of Brelo when the officer asked to have his case decided by Common Pleas Judge John P. O'Donnell instead of a jury. McGinty unsuccessfully argued that a bench trial would deny blacks the opportunity to be part of a jury.
The deaths of Russell and Williams and other in-custody deaths, including a 12-year-old boy fatally shot while holding a pellet gun, have heightened tensions between Cleveland's black residents and city police officers.
The U.S. Department of Justice issued a report in December that said an investigation had found that Cleveland police officers too often use excessive force and violate people's civil rights. The city and DOJ have agreed to a reform-minded consent decree that calls for bias-free policing and better engagement between officers and the citizens they serve.