Three Chicago police officers were found not guilty on all charges linked to an alleged conspiracy to cover up the 2014 fatal shooting of a black teenager.
Former Chicago police detective David March, former officer Joseph Walsh, and suspended officer Thomas Gaffney were all accused of falsifying police reports after their colleague, Jason Van Dyke, fired 16 shots at 17-year-old Laquan McDonald, which killed him. In her ruling on Thursday, however, Cook County Judge Domenica Stephenson said that prosecutors failed to prove the officers intentionally gave false statements.
Police reform advocates had watched the case closely and viewed it as a test of the “code of silence” culture in police departments, in which officers decline to report one another’s misconduct or crimes.
Prosecutors said the police reports filed by the officers exaggerated the threat posed by McDonald, including that he attacked them with a knife, in an apparent attempt to justify Van Dyke’s decision to use deadly force. But dashcam video — whose release one year after the shooting sparked citywide protests — contradicted McDonald's aggression.
Police encountered McDonald on a Chicago street on the night of Oct. 20, 2014. Dashcam video showed Van Dyke, a 14-year veteran of the force, opening fire on the teen as he walked away holding a small knife. Van Dyke continued shooting McDonald even as he lay on the ground.
The video and alleged cover-up inflamed police-community tensions and gave rise to the chant and hashtag “16 shots and a cover-up.”
Defense attorneys for the officers pointed to the fact that the dashcam video was filmed from a different viewpoint than where Van Dyke and Walsh were standing. Defense lawyers for Van Dyke also tried to make this argument, but the jury didn’t buy it, according to Chicago Sun-Times reporter Andy Grimm.
As evidence of conspiracy, prosecutors also pointed to the fact that the officers failed to interview Jose Torres, a civilian witness, at the scene of the shooting. In her ruling, however, Stephenson said that Torres never presented himself as a possible witness at the time.
While the officers accused of conspiracy opted for a bench trial, Van Dyke was tried and convicted by a jury last November on second-degree murder charges, plus 16 counts of aggravated battery — each one representing a bullet that he fired at McDonald. Van Dyke will be sentenced Friday and faces anywhere from probation to 96 years in prison.
Cover image: This combination of Nov. 28, 2018 file photos shows former Chicago Police officer Joseph Walsh, left, former detective David March and former officer Thomas Gaffney during a bench trial before Judge Domenica A. Stephenson at Leighton Criminal Court Building in Chicago.(Zbigniew Bzdak/Chicago Tribune via AP, Pool, File)