Three Chicago cops accused of attempting to cover up the fatal police shooting of Laquan McDonald will learn their fate Dec. 19. Cook County County Judge Domenica Stephenson announced the timetable after closing arguments concluded at 6:50 p.m. Thursday.
Officer Thomas Gaffney, former Officer Joseph Walsh, and former Detective David March were each charged with obstruction of justice, official misconduct, and conspiracy. All three waived their right to a jury trial, and instead, chose to have Stephenson decide their cases.
None of the defendants took the stand, and their lawyers called only one witness.
Gaffney, Walsh, and March were all on the scene after Officer Jason Van Dyke shot McDonald 16 times on Oct. 20, 2014. Prosecutors claimed the three gave false statements or filled out inaccurate reports in an effort to protect Van Dyke. In October, Van Dyke was found guilty of second-degree murder and aggravated battery after a high-profile trial that focused on a police dashcam recording of the shooting.
Police reform advocates are hoping Stephenson’s decision in the conspiracy case will send a message across the country that the so-called police code of silence will no longer be tolerated. The defendants, meanwhile, have maintained they accurately reported on the McDonald shooting to the best of their abilities, and the charges against them were trumped up to satisfy an outraged public.
On Thursday, Special Prosecutor Patricia Brown Holmes made her final push during closing arguments. She methodically broke down the case against each officer and told the judge that filing false police reports is “a violation of public trust.”
“That’s official misconduct, that’s obstruction of justice, that’s conspiracy — right there in black and white,” Holmes said.
Defense lawyer James McKay, who represents March, offered a lengthy, fiery response.
“They want to criminalize police reports!” McKay yelled. He repeatedly talked about the threat Laquan McDonald posed while holding the knife and refusing to follow police commands. “This case isn’t about violating public trust; it’s about McDonald violating the law!”
The reports vs. the video
Much of the prosecution’s case focused on how police reports contradicted the now infamous dashcam video of the shooting.
Walsh, who was Van Dyke’s partner the night of the shooting, and Gaffney, one of the first officers to encounter McDonald, both filed reports that bolstered Van Dyke’s version of the shooting that McDonald came at him with a knife.
They indicated, for example, that McDonald had committed “battery” consisting of an “attack with weapon.” But Gaffney also reported he did not see the shooting.
March, who led the department’s investigation, falsely reported that statements from officers on the scene matched the dashcam video.
March also concluded that the shooting was justified.
Prosecution: Cops tried to make case against Van Dyke go away
Over four days, prosecutors presented seven witnesses and dozens of documents, many of them police reports by the defendants, that inflated the threat McDonald posed to officers before Van Dyke opened fire.
During closing arguments, Holmes stressed that the officers filed police reports that mirrored each other even though those reports contradicted the dashcam video.
Holmes said the officers knew they were lying, but did it anyway because “there are strength in numbers.”
“Laquan McDonald was a human being. He deserved due process in the law, and not to have police officers write false reports and shape a false narrative to justify his killing,” Holmes said. “Filing a false police report in order to protect a fellow officer from prosecution is not honorable. It’s not sticking up for a colleague, it’s a violation of the public trust, it’s a violation of their oath of office, it’s a violation of the law.”
Defense: ‘No officers are robots’
Defense attorneys called only one witness, but entered 57 records into evidence, many of them police reports and progress reports from detective March.
Defense attorneys argued there was no evidence the officers were dishonest or collaborated on their reports. Thomas Breen, who represents Walsh, said that just because officers made similar errors when filling out their reports doesn’t mean those officers conspired with each other.
“These officers, and no officers, are robots,” Breen told the judge.
Defense attorneys said that prosecutors exaggerated discrepancies in the police reports to impugn cops who responded to a tough situation to the best of their abilities.
“Thank God we’re in a courtroom (and not the) court of public opinion,” McKay said. “Evidence matters here, not politics, not labels. … The state’s case is so weak. The absence of real credible evidence is so apparent.”
Walsh and March resigned in 2016 after the city’s inspector general recommended their firing. Gaffney was stripped of police powers last year after the indictment leading to this trial. Gaffney is suspended with pay, according to a Chicago police spokesman.
Patrick Smith covers criminal justice for WBEZ. Follow him @pksmid.