A Chicago police officer testified Wednesday that the detective in charge of investigating the police killing of Laquan McDonald altered her version of the incident in official reports to help justify the police shooting.
Officer Dora Fontaine said a report by Detective David March included a statement attributed to her that wrongly described McDonald as attacking officer Jason Van Dyke before Van Dyke opened fire.
March, who is no longer with the police department, along with officer Thomas Gaffney and former officer Joseph Walsh are charged with obstruction of justice, official misconduct and conspiracy.
Fontaine, testifying under use immunity which means she can’t be prosecuted for anything she said on the stand, was one of three officers who testified on the second day of the trial.
This story is part of 16 Shots, a podcast about the fatal police shooting of Laquan McDonald, the trials of Officer Jason Van Dyke and three other officers, and the troubled relationship between African-Americans and the Chicago Police Department. Check the podcast feed later to hear the latest episode. To hear all the episodes, subscribe on Pocket Casts, Apple Podcasts, or wherever you get your podcasts.
‘Because it was a lie’
Fontaine, 51, is a 17-year department veteran. She arrived on the scene just before Van Dyke started shooting McDonald.
In a matter of fact tone Fontaine described seeing McDonald walking down the road, “swaying the knife” near his waist, and then seeing McDonald “twisting, falling,” after Van Dyke opened fire.
Fontaine said that March, the lead detective on the case, interviewed her the night of the shooting and she described what she saw. However, she said in official police reports, March changed what she said to match Van Dyke’s version of the shooting.
In particular, March put in his report that Fontaine saw McDonald raise the knife as if attacking Van Dyke. Fontaine insisted she never said that to March, and in fact never saw McDonald raise the knife above his waist or move toward Van Dyke.
Fontaine said another officer alerted her to the false report.
“I started cursing, I said ‘what the f---,’ I was upset because I had not said that,” Fontaine said of her response when she read March’s report.
Special prosecutor Patricia Brown Holmes asked Fontaine, “why did this matter to you?”
“Because it was a lie,” Fontaine answered.
Fontaine said after she spoke out about March’s false report, she was subjected to backlash from other officers.
“Other officers were calling me a rat, a snitch, a traitor,” Fontaine said. She also said other officers told her they would not back her up on the street if she was in danger.
‘Do you know what perjury is?’
March’s attorney James McKay ridiculed Fontaine in his cross examination pointing out that on the night of the shooting she had turned her police radio down to make a personal call in her squad car and only learned of the call for back up when her partner came back to the car from getting coffee in a Dunkin’ Donuts. “That’s the kind of police officer you are,” McKay said.
In his questioning, McKay also pointed to a recommendation by Chicago’s Inspector General that Fontaine be fired for making false statements about the shooting, implying that Fontaine only avoided losing her job by claiming that March had distorted her statement.
Fontaine acknowledged that she thought she was going to be fired, but insisted she did not know why she avoided the axe.
McKay also read from transcripts of past statements Fontaine gave under oath about the McDonald shooting that contradicted parts of her testimony Wednesday.
“Are you one of those special people that their memories get better in time, or are you like the rest of us where when the thing is fresh in our mind, our statements are more accurate?” McKay asked her.
“I’ve always answered the right way,” Fontaine replied.
At one point, McKay stopped and asked Fontaine, “by the way, do you know what perjury is?”
Fontaine said she did.
Also testifying Wednesday was officer Joseph McElligott, who was partnered with defendant officer Gaffney the night McDonald was killed. He appeared morose on the stand, testifying against his former partner of two years. McElligott followed McDonald for several blocks the night of the shooting and said that he never felt threatened.
Under questioning from defense attorneys McElligott said no one had instructed him to help justify the shooting, suggesting that there was no effort or conspiracy by officers to cover-up for Van Dyke that night.
Police academy instructor Sgt. Larry Snelling also testified Wednesday. He said officers incorrectly deemed McDonald an assailant in their reports, when he should have been marked a “resistor.”
Patrick Smith covers criminal justice for WBEZ. Follow him @pksmid.
Chip Mitchell and Shannon Heffernan contributed reporting for this story.
Patrick Smith, Chip Mitchell and Shannon Heffernan report on Criminal Justice for WBEZ.