Chicago — - A judge issued a not guilty verdict Thursday for three Chicago police officers accused of lying in their reports to protect the white officer who fatally shot black teenager Laquan McDonald.
Cook County Judge Domenica Stephenson issued the verdict Thursday for David March, Joseph Walsh and Thomas Gaffney. They had been charged with conspiracy, obstruction of justice and official misconduct for allegedly lying about the 2014 shooting, which sparked large protests and accusations of a cover-up after dashcam video of the confrontation emerged 13 months after it happened. Stephenson found them not guilty on all three charges.
The video, which city officials refused to release until ordered by a judge, showed Officer Jason Van Dyke firing round after round into the 17-year-old, and it conflicted with the officers' accounts, which stated that McDonald aggressively swung a knife at police and kept trying to get up even after he was shot. Van Dyke was convicted by a jury in October of second-degree murder and 16 counts of aggravated battery — one for each bullet he shot McDonald with.
Stephenson found the state didn't meet their burden in proving a series of allegations against the defendants, including that the three lied in police reports or conspired to cover up information. She said even if there were errors in the police reports they filed, it wouldn't rise to the level of the officers knowingly making a false report or a conspiracy.
Stephenson said the video amounts to a "vantage point" that was taken from a different angle than Walsh's view. She said comparing the police reports to the video to determine whether the reports were true — as the state had argued — would amount to looking at only a portion of the evidence.
"Two people with two different vantage points can witness the same event and describe it differently," Stephenson said. "This doesn't mean they are lying."
Activists and McDonald's family immediately decried the verdict. McDonald's great uncle, the Rev. Marvin Hunter, said that "to say that these men are not guilty is to say that Jason Van Dyke is not guilty."
"The verdict says to police officers that you can lie, cheat, steal, rape, rob and pillage and it's OK, we will support you and make sure you never see the inside a jail cell," Hunter said.
Speaking to reporters after the verdict, Walsh said the case had been "heart-wrenching, heartbreaking for my family for a year and a half." A defense lawyer praised the judge as courageous, saying she didn't bow to a "tremendous amount of pressure" to convict the three defendants.
Prosecutors contended that Walsh, who was Van Dyke's partner, and Gaffney, a patrolman, wrote among other things that McDonald assaulted Van Dyke, CBS Chicago reported. Gaffney claimed Van Dyke and other officers had been injured. None of those details aligned with the dashcam video, which showed McDonald was walking away from Van Dyke when he was fatally shot.
Prosecutors said March — a detective who investigated the shooting — not only cleared Van Dyke of any wrongdoing by saying the video matched witness accounts, but also told another officer to include false information in her report, CBS Chicago reported. But Stephenson said that that officer, key prosecution witness Officer Dora Fontaine, "tried to minimize" McDonald's behavior and gave conflicting testimony on what happened that night. She said she did not believe Fontaine's allegation that March attributed a false statement to her in his report on the shooting.
Stephenson said the state didn't prove that listing officers as victims in the police report constituted a falsehood. She said it was "undisputed and undeniable" that McDonald was an "armed offender" and didn't drop the knife for several blocks.
The judge repeatedly stated that McDonald was moving after being hit by the first few bullets and refused to relinquish the knife.
"An officer could have reasonably believed an attack was imminent," she said. "It was borne out in the video that McDonald continued to move after he fell to the ground." Those and other comments suggest she accepted an argument jurors in the Van Dyke murder trial seem to rejected: that McDonald was a bona fide threat.
The video that was crucial to convicting Van Dyke appears to show that McDonald's movements while lying on the street were largely caused by Van Dyke continuing to shoot him.
The judge also said there was no indication that officers tried to hide evidence.
"The evidence shows just the opposite," she said. She singled out how they preserved the graphic video at the heart of the case.
Van Dyke is believed to be the first Chicago officer convicted in a fatal on-duty shooting of an African-American. The other three are thought to the first to be charged with trying to cover up an on-duty shooting. Gaffney is the only one who remains with the police department, although he has been suspended without pay.
Although the officers' case has not garnered as much attention as Van Dyke's, many viewed it as more significant because it challenges the code of silence that critics have long accused the police department of using to cover up its messes. Christy Lopez, a former Justice Department attorney who helped lead an investigation of the police department after the McDonald shooting, said it's noteworthy the trial was held in Chicago, where Mayor Rahm Emanuel famously acknowledged the department's code of silence after the release of the video.
Speaking of the "blue code of silence," Hunter said the verdict "solidifies it, bolsters it, keeps it intact and in play."
Attorneys for the officers accused of lying about the shooting ridiculed the decision to charge them, telling the court during the trial that the officers merely wrote what they observed or, in March's case, what the other officers told him they saw. They said there was no evidence that the officers conspired to get their stories straight.
"The state wants you to criminalize police reports," McKay bellowed at one point.
Robert Weisskopff, a retired Chicago police officer who once headed the lieutenants' union, expressed worry that the case will cause other officers to be less forthcoming.
"What cops on the street are going to start writing is, 'We came, we saw, he's dead,'" he said. "Why would you do any more investigation if you thought you could lose everything if what you believed was true turns out not to be?"
Jim Pasco, executive director of the National Fraternal Order of Police, said officers already shaken by the prosecution of six Baltimore police officers in the 2015 arrest and death of Freddie Gray — all were acquitted or had cases against them dropped — echoed that sentiment.
"What's the incentive to disclose everything you know if you fear it will be used against you?" he said.
Van Dyke is due to be sentenced Friday by Judge Vincent Gaughan. The city isn't planning the same show of force for Van Dyke's sentencing that it deployed on the day of the verdict in his trial, when metal barriers lined the street outside the courthouse and dozens of uniformed officers stood every few feet. There are no plans to cancel high school sporting events or nervous parents talking about keeping their kids home from school, like there were on that day.
Although police were not expecting a large turnout of protesters for Van Dyke's hearing, black community leaders said they would pay close attention to the sentence. The Rev. Marshall Hatch, a prominent black minister on the city's West Side, said the hopefulness that the black community felt after Van Dyke was convicted will evaporate if he receives a light prison sentence or even walks free.
"It will be like he got away with murder, absolutely," he said.
Estimates of the sentence Van Dyke might get have varied wildly: The murder charge carries a prison term of four to 20 years, but Gaughan also could just give Van Dyke probation for that count. The aggravated battery charge carries a sentence of six to 30 years behind bars and does not allow for probation alone.
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