A US judge has said enough evidence exists to charge two white policemen over the fatal shooting of a 12-year-old black boy who was holding a pellet gun, a largely symbolic ruling because he cannot compel prosecutors to charge them.
Municipal Court Judge Ronald Adrine ruled there is probable cause to charge rookie officer Timothy Loehmann with murder, involuntary manslaughter, reckless homicide or dereliction of duty over the November shooting of Tamir Rice.
He also said there is evidence to charge Loehmann's partner, Frank Garmback, with reckless homicide or dereliction of duty.
The judge made his ruling after activists submitted affidavits asking the court to rule there is enough evidence to charge the officers over Tamir's death, which has spurred protests and complaints about treatment of blacks.
"This court reaches its conclusions consistent with the facts in evidence and the standard of proof that applies at this time," the judge wrote.
The killing of Tamir has become part of a national outcry about minorities, especially black boys and men, dying in police custody. Cleveland and the US Department of Justice are moving forward on a reform-minded consent decree after a DOJ investigation found Cleveland police engaged in a practice of using excessive force and violating people's rights.
The Cuyahoga County Sheriff's Department recently completed its investigation and gave its file to the county prosecutor, whose staff are reviewing the case while preparing to take it to a grand jury to determine if criminal charges should be filed.
Cuyahoga County prosecutor Tim McGinty said this case, like all other fatal use-of-deadly-force cases involving law enforcement officers, will go to a grand jury.
"Ultimately the grand jury decides whether police officers are charged or not charged."
The judge wrote in his ruling that a video of the shooting of Tamir captured by a surveillance camera is "notorious and hard to watch". The video, which was released shortly after the shooting, shows Loehmann shooting Tamir in the abdomen within two seconds of a police car driven by Garmback skidding to a stop near the boy.
The judge said he watched the video several times and was "thunderstruck" by how quickly the encounter turned deadly.
"There appears to be little if any time reflected on the video for Rice to react or respond to any verbal or audible comments," he wrote.
A Rice family lawyer, Walter Madison, said the judge's ruling was "historic".
"I think it's a blueprint for the rest of the nation with respect to citizen participation," Mr Madison said. "They're able to participate through engagement. They can witness the transparency. A transparency leads to legitimacy."
Police officials have said Loehmann ordered Tamir three times to put up his hands before he shot the boy. A former police union official said officers had no way of Tamir was only carrying a pellet gun.
The officers had responded to an emergency call reporting that a man was pointing and waving a gun at a playground outside a recreation centre. The caller said the gun might not be real but that information was not relayed to the officers.
One of the activists who submitted affidavits said the judge's ruling gives everyone a chance to "catch their breath".
"It's a small step forward in the fight for justice for Tamir Rice," Rachelle Smith said. "But it isn't justice in and of itself."
Lawyers working with the activists acknowledged that, regardless of how a judge ruled on the affidavits, evidence would ultimately have to go to a grand jury for the case to proceed to trial. The activists used an obscure section of state law that allows private citizens to file affidavits in court alleging a crime has occurred.