3 Chicago officers acquitted of covering up 2014 shooting of teen

Updated January 17, 2019 - 9:42 pm

CHICAGO — Three Chicago officers were acquitted Thursday of trying to cover up the 2014 shooting of a black teenager by a white officer who was seen pulling the trigger on the shocking dashcam video that showed Laquan McDonald getting hit with 16 bullets.

In rejecting the prosecution’s entire case, Judge Domenica Stephenson seemed to accept many of the same defense arguments that were rejected by jurors who in October convicted officer Jason Van Dyke of second-degree murder and aggravated battery. He is scheduled to be sentenced Friday.

The judge 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.

McDonald’s family immediately questioned how the two cases could produce such different decisions. His great uncle, the Rev. Marvin Hunter, told reporters that the verdict means “that if you are a police officer you can lie, cheat and steal.”

“To say that these men are not guilty is to say that Jason Van Dyke is not guilty.” He also said “it is a sad day for America.”

The shooting has provoked periodic large street protests since 2015, when the video came to light, and the acquittals could renew that movement.

“We will be down here tomorrow by the hundreds, and we will cry out for justice for Laquan,” activist Eric Russell said.

The trial was watched closely by law enforcement and critics of the department that has long had a reputation for condoning police brutality and for observing a “code of silence” that until recent years city officials denied even existed.

Officer Joseph Walsh, officer Thomas Gaffney and detective David March were accused of conspiracy, official misconduct and obstruction of justice. All but Gaffney have since left the department.

The judge rejected prosecution arguments that the video demonstrated officers were lying when they described McDonald as moving even after he was shot. She 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 appeared to show the teen collapsing in a heap after the first few shots and moving in large part because bullets kept striking his body for 10 more seconds.

Referring to at least one officer who disputed the accounts in reports drawn up by the three defendants, the judge said it’s not unusual for two witnesses to describe events in starkly different ways.

“It does not necessarily mean that one is lying,” she said.

The judge also noted several times that the “vantage point” of various officers who witnessed the shooting were “completely different.” That could explain why their accounts did not sync with what millions of people saw in the video.

Both Van Dyke’s trial and that of the three other officers hinged on the video, which showed Van Dyke opening fire within seconds of getting out of his police SUV and continuing to shoot the 17-year-old while he was lying on the street and barely moving. Police were responding to a report of a male who was breaking into trucks and stealing radios on the city’s South Side.

Prosecutors alleged that Gaffney, March and Walsh, who was Van Dyke’s partner, submitted false reports about what really happened to try to prevent or shape any criminal investigation of the shooting. Among other things, they said the officers falsely claimed that McDonald ignored verbal commands from Van Dyke, that Van Dyke shot McDonald after McDonald aggressively swung a knife at the officers and that he kept shooting the teen because McDonald was trying to get up still armed with the knife.

McDonald did have a small knife that he had used to puncture a tire on Gaffney’s police vehicle, but the video shows that he did not swing it at the officers before Van Dyke shot him and that he appeared to be incapacitated after falling to the ground.

“The case is clear. The case is straightforward, and it is concise,” Special Prosecutor Patricia Brown Holmes told the judge during opening statements. “It boils down to what the defendants wrote on paper versus what is shown on video.”

When later summarizing her case, Holmes urged Stephenson to hold the officers accountable and to provide some measure of justice to the slain teen.

McDonald “was a human being. He deserved due process in the law and not to have police officers write false reports and shape a false narrative,” Holmes said.

Attorneys for Gaffney, Walsh and March used the same strategy that the defense used at Van Dyke’s trial by placing all the blame on McDonald.

It was McDonald’s refusal to drop his knife and threatening actions that “caused these officers to see what they saw,” March’s attorney, James McKay, told the court. “This is a case about law and order (and) about Laquan McDonald not following any laws that night.”

The lawyers ridiculed the decision to charge the three officers, saying they merely wrote what they observed or, in March’s case, what the other officers told him they saw. And 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.

City Hall released the video to the public in November 2015 — 13 months after the shooting — and acted only because a judge ordered it to do so. The charges against Van Dyke were not announced until the day of the video’s release.

The case cost the police superintendent his job and was widely seen as the reason the county’s top prosecutor was voted out of office a few months later. It was also stunning because it led to charges not only against Van Dyke, but against the three officers accused of covering for each other.

At the same time, the case triggered a federal investigation, resulting in a blistering report that found Chicago officers routinely used excessive force and violated the rights of residents, particularly minorities. The city implemented a new policy that requires video of fatal police shootings to be released within 60 days, accelerated a program to equip all officers with body cameras and implemented a host of other reforms to change the way officer-involved shootings are investigated.

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