Reluctantly, Cop To Be A Key Witness In Police Cover-Up Trial | WBEZ
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Reluctantly, Cop To Be A Key Witness In Police Cover-Up Trial

On the first day of Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke’s murder trial, prosecutors called Dora Fontaine to the witness stand.

Fontaine, a veteran cop wearing a blue patrol uniform, testified with immunity from state and federal prosecutors. But it was clear she did not want to be there.

She was asked more than 100 questions about the night that Van Dyke shot Laquan McDonald, 17. About half of her answers consisted of a single word, “yes” or “no.” She answered several other questions by saying she did not remember. None of her answers exceeded a few phrases.

Fontaine, nevertheless, will likely be a key prosecution witness in the upcoming trial of three Chicago officers charged with covering up for Van Dyke, according to a recently unsealed court document.

She is expected to testify that one of the defendants told her to report that McDonald injured Van Dyke — a claim disproved by the famous police dashcam video of the shooting.

Fontaine, 51, is also expected to testify about a separate report, attributed to her, that describes McDonald as making threatening motions toward Van Dyke. When she takes the witness stand, Fontaine will say those things are untrue and she never said them.

Cop vs. cop

Fontaine arrived seconds before Van Dyke began shooting McDonald on Oct. 20, 2014.

Two of the officers who face the cover-up charges, Thomas Gaffney and Joseph Walsh, were already on the scene. The third, Detective David March, led the police investigation of the incident.

The charges include conspiracy, official misconduct and obstruction of justice. The trial is scheduled to start Nov. 26.

Special Prosecutor Patricia Brown Holmes outlined much of her case in a document unsealed this month by Cook County Judge Domenica Stephenson. Fontaine’s testimony, the document shows, will focus largely on Detective March.

The prosecution evidence includes a report submitted by Fontaine that says Van Dyke was “injured by offender” — a reference to McDonald — and that characterizes Van Dyke, Walsh, and Gaffney as “victims.” Fontaine, according to Brown Holmes, “is expected to testify that defendant March told her to write this information.”

Brown Holmes also brings up a report filed by March and attributed to Fontaine that points out that McDonald was carrying a knife in his right hand. The report says McDonald raised that arm toward Van Dyke “as if attacking” the officer. It also says the teen was “walking sideways, body facing (east), toward JVD + JW,” referring to Van Dyke and Walsh, who were partners that night.

Fontaine, according to Brown Holmes, “is expected to testify that she did not make those statements and that those statements are false.”

March’s lawyer declined to comment. The attorney pointed to a gag order imposed on the case’s parties by Stephenson.

March, 60, resigned from the police department in 2016 after Chicago Inspector General Joseph Ferguson recommended his dismissal.

Brown Holmes also links two of March’s former superiors in CPD’s detectives bureau to “false” reports about the shooting but she has not brought criminal charges against them or any other department bosses.

Brown Holmes does not name officers besides the three defendants. Fontaine appears in the document as Officer Individual C. WBEZ identified Fontaine based on her beat number, shooting-scene location, and other details that match court records, testimony, and police reports.

Fontaine as a witness

Despite Fontaine’s expected role for the prosecution, she does not appear to be an ideal witness. At the scene, she was walking toward the gunfire but has testified she does not remember seeing it.

Experts say Fontaine, a 17-year department veteran, risks ostracization by fellow officers.

Brown Holmes’ team says there will be another problem when they call Fontaine to testify: The defense team includes attorney Will Fahy, who represents Gaffney.

The prosecutors have argued that Fahy has an “extraordinary” conflict of interest because he has also represented Fontaine, her partner during the shooting, and another officer who was on the scene. Fahy was their attorney for interviews with law enforcement officials about the incident and for 2015 testimony before a federal grand jury, according to testimony at a Sept. 5 hearing before Judge Stephenson.

At that hearing, a prosecutor argued that Fontaine and the other officers are needed on the witness stand to prove the case and that the defense cross-examination could draw from confidential information stemming from Fahy’s earlier representation of them.

The prosecutors have argued that Fahy already may have used such information to attack Fontaine’s credibility. They say a defense motion to dismiss the charges accuses Fontaine of perjury. Stephenson has kept that motion under seal.

At the Sept. 5 hearing, Fahy responded that Fontaine and the other officers have signed a conflict-of-interest waiver and that his representation of them was brief. Stephenson ruled Fahy could stay on the case.

Fontaine, through her attorney, declined to comment.

In Van Dyke’s murder trial, meanwhile, Fontaine’s testimony took place Sept. 17. She said she did not see McDonald raise the knife or make any other aggressive move toward officers. She said she did not pull her gun from its holster.

A jury on Oct. 5 convicted Van Dyke of second-degree murder and 16 counts of aggravated battery with a firearm.

Chip Mitchell reports out of WBEZ’s West Side studio about criminal justice. Follow him at @ChipMitchell1.

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