Cleveland police officer Michael Brelo was acquitted of manslaughter charges stemming from the 2012 deaths of an unarmed black couple on Saturday, and the judge cited an unusual baseball analogy to explain his ruling.
Brelo fired 49 rounds at Timothy Russell and his passenger, Malissa Williams, who were killed after a car chase through the city, according to The New York Times. Notably, The Times reports, Brelo fired at least 15 shots after reloading and climbing onto the hood of the couple’s car — after the other officers had stopped firing.
While there were reports of gunfire coming from the car before the chase began, prosecutors argued that “the noise apparently was the result of the car’s backfiring,” according to The Times. On Saturday, 71 people were arrested in Cleveland during protests following Brelo’s acquittal, according to Cleveland.com.
Even though Cuyahoga Common Pleas Judge John P. O’Donnell determined that Brelo fired shots at both Russell and Williams that would have killed them, Ida Lieszkovszky reports at Cleveland.com, he did not find that Brelo alone was responsible for their deaths — the basis for voluntary manslaughter.
“O’Donnell concluded that prosecutors failed to prove in both cases that Brelo’s shots were the ones that ultimately killed the two people,” Lieszkovszky reports.
The judge explained his ruling by citing an argument Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia made last year in the case Burrage v. United States, which concerned responsibility over a person’s death from a drug overdose.
Basically, Scalia argues that there is a difference in the importance of a single home run between winning a baseball game 1-0 and winning 5-2. In the former score, it’s clear that the home run is responsible for the team’s win, but in the latter score, the home run “played a nonessential contributing role” in the game’s outcome.
“If the effect — the baseball team’s win in the analogy, Russell’s death in this case — would have resulted even without the cause — the first inning home run in the analogy, Brelo’s fatal shot in this case — then the result cannot be connected to the conduct beyond a reasonable doubt and the crime isn’t proved,” O’Donnell writes.
Here’s the full excerpt O’Donnell cites from Scalia’s argument:
Consider a baseball game in which the visiting team’s leadoff batter hits a home run in the top of the first inning. If the visiting team goes on to win by a score of 1 to 0, ever person competent in the English language and familiar with the American pastime would agree that the victory resulted from the home run. This is so because it is natural to say that one event is the outcome or consequence of another when the former would not have occurred but for the latter … By contrast, it makes little sense to say that an event resulted from or was the outcome of some earlier action if the action merely played a nonessential contributing role in producing the event. If the visiting team wound up winning by 5 to 2 rather than 1 to 0, one would be surprised to read in the sports page that the victory resulted from the leadoff batter’s early, non-dispositive home run.
You can read Judge John P. O’Donnell’s full ruling at Cleveland.com.
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