Three Chicago cops accused of attempting to cover up the fatal police shooting of Laquan McDonald were found not guilty Thursday.
Officer Thomas Gaffney, former Officer Joseph Walsh, and former Detective David March were each acquitted of obstruction of justice, official misconduct, and conspiracy in the high-profile case.
Prosecutors had claimed that police reports filed by those officers were part of a conspiracy to cover up for Officer Jason Van Dyke, who shot McDonald 16 times on Oct. 20, 2014.
But Cook County Judge Domenica Stephenson disagreed. In handing down her ruling, she attacked the prosecution’s reliance on both the police reports and the infamous dashcam recording that captured the shooting and sparked massive protests and political fallout.
Stephenson said the shooting should not be viewed in hindsight.
“It is not as simple as looking at the (police) reports and comparing them to what was on the video,” Stephenson said.
This story is part of 16 Shots, a podcast about the fatal police shooting of Laquan McDonald, the trial of Officer Jason Van Dyke, and the troubled relationship between African-Americans and the Chicago Police Department. To hear all the episodes, listen on Pocket Casts, Apple Podcasts, or wherever you get your podcasts.
In her hourlong statement, Stephenson said it was “indisputable and undeniable” that McDonald was a threat. McDonald was carrying a knife with a three-inch blade, and the judge called it reasonable for officers to believe an attack was imminent and note that in police reports.
However, last fall a jury decided the shooting was not justified and convicted Van Dyke of second-degree murder and 16 counts of aggravated battery. The former officer is scheduled to be sentenced Friday.
Beyond the video, which shows McDonald walking away from Van Dyke just before the shooting, Stephenson attacked the credibility of state witnesses. Notably, she called the testimony of Officer Dora Fontaine “not credible” because of prior statements to the FBI and criticized witness Jose Torres for not immediately going to police as a witness.
Todd Pugh, the lawyer who represented Walsh, said Stephenson considered what the officers saw in the moment of the shooting and stressed that there “never was a case here.”
“They say a grand jury will indict a ham sandwich, and that’s what happened in this case,” Pugh said.
Attorney Jim McKay, who represented March, said Stephenson’s opinion was strong and clear. He called protestors’ claims that the so-called police “code of silence” extends to the courtroom “baloney.”
“The state failed miserably at sustaining their burden of proof … This case wasn’t even close, and three innocent men had to be put through hell,” he said. “Whatever you think about Jason Van Dyke, these three men were innocent since day one.”
Not surprisingly, prosecutors disagreed with the ruling and said it’s difficult to prosecute police officers in a system where they can have a judge, instead of a jury, decide their fate.
“We do hope that this has been a crack in the wall of the code of silence and that others will think twice about engaging in conduct that will land them in an investigation such as this,” Special Prosecutor Patricia Brown Holmes said.
Inside the packed courtroom, police supporters clapped when Stephenson announced her decision. Outside the courtroom, local activists and church leaders expressed dismay.
McDonald’s great-uncle, Rev. Marvin Hunter, expressed frustration with the local criminal justice system and called for a federal investigation.
“I have no confidence in what’s happened … To say that these men are not guilty is to say that Jason Van Dyke is not guilty,” Hunter said.
Local activist William Calloway encouraged black Chicagoans to vote in the upcoming election instead of taking to the streets in protest.
“We’re disappointed — we’re devastated,” Calloway said. “We’ve been fighting for justice for Laquan for over four years … That blue code of silence is not just for the police department — it expands to the judicial system. And this is an example of that.”
Karen Sheley, the director of the ACLU of Illinois’ Police Practices Project, issued a statement denouncing the ruling.
“The acquittals are a painful reminder of the complete lack of structural accountability for police officers in Chicago. … The court’s decision does nothing to exonerate a police department so rotten that a teenager can be murdered — on video — by one of its officers and no one in the chain-in-command lifted a finger to do anything about it,” Sheley said.
Gaffney, Walsh, and March had all waived their right to a jury trial, and instead chose to have Stephenson decide their fate. The trial closed Dec. 6 with none of the men taking the stand and their lawyers calling only one witness.
Prosecutors said the officers should not have filled out reports to indicate McDonald was an immediate threat, but lawyers representing the cops said there was no conspiracy and any honest mistakes in those reports aren’t a crime.
Stephenson agreed with the defense: “The officers saw the same incident, so it would be expected their various recollections of what happened would be similar.”
WBEZ’s Patrick Smith, Shannon Heffernan, Chip Mitchell, and Arionne Nettles contributed to this story.