Three Chicago cops charged with covering up the fatal police shooting of black teenager Laquan McDonald went to trial Tuesday, in a case that takes the “code of silence” culture in police departments to task.
Former Chicago Police detective David March, former officer Joseph Walsh and suspended officer Thomas Gaffney are all charged with conspiracy, obstruction of justice and misconduct stemming from the Oct. 20, 2014, encounter that left the body of 17-year-old McDonald riddled with bullets.
McDonald’s death received little attention when it happened, but public interest in the case exploded in November 2015 after the city released damning dash-cam video that appeared to contradict police claims that the teen posed a threat when former officer Jason Van Dyke opened fire.
Video of the encounter shows Van Dyke, a 14-year veteran of the force, shooting at McDonald, who was walking away from him holding a small knife in his hand. Although McDonald posed no apparent threat to him, Van Dyke fired a stream of shots at McDonald, continuing even after the teen had crumpled to the ground.
Last month, a jury found Van Dyke guilty of second-degree murder and 16 counts of aggravated battery. Each count represented each of the bullets he fired at McDonald.
But prosecutors say Van Dyke, who was the first to be charged, wasn’t the only officer who committed wrongdoing.
March, Walsh and Gaffney have all been accused of filing false police reports after the shooting exaggerating the threat posed by McDonald in an apparent effort to justify Van Dyke’s use of fatal force. The officers said in their report that McDonald had attacked them with a knife and would not stop even after he had been shot multiple times, testimony that was clearly contradicted by the video of the encounter.
Prosecutors also contend that the officers failed to interview key witnesses at the scene of the shooting, including Jose Torres and his son Xavier, who say they witnessed the shooting from their car. They are expected to testify against the officers, saying they were asked to leave the area and were not interviewed, according to the Chicago Tribune.
All three defendants have opted for a bench trial, rather than go before a jury. The case will be decided by Cook County Associate Judge Domenica Stephenson.
The shooting and alleged cover-up put a spotlight on an informal but universal law enforcement rule known as the “code of silence,” where officers decline to report on one another’s crimes or misconduct. But prosecutors say the officers’ conduct in this case went far beyond that.
“The indictment makes clear that these defendants did more than merely obey an unofficial ‘code of silence,’” said Patrick Brown Holmes, an attorney who is serving as special prosecutor in the investigation, when the charges were announced last year. “Rather, it alleges that they lied about what occurred to prevent independent criminal investigators from learning the truth.”
And that code still only extends so far. Of the nine other officers present when Van Dyke shot McDonald, only three were indicted, though the city has since moved to fire seven of the nine, and Gaffney has been suspended without pay since the charges came down in 2017.
One of those unindicted officers, Dora Fontaine, is expected to testify against her colleagues in this trial, as she did in Van Dyke’s trial.
Cover image: A demonstrator, center, speaks into a megaphone while holding a placard during an anti-violence march in Chicago, Illinois, U.S., on Thursday, Aug. 2, 2018. Protesters aim to draw attention to gun violence while targeting places where they believe their anger goes unnoticed. Photographer: Christopher Dilts/Bloomberg via Getty Images