CHICAGO – A judge found three Chicago police officers not guilty Thursday of conspiring to cover up damning details around the controversial police shooting of Laquan McDonald, the black teen whose 2014 death sparked public outrage and political tumult in the nation’s third-largest city.
Officer Thomas Gaffney, former Officer Joseph Walsh and former Detective David March had been charged with conspiracy, obstruction of justice and official misconduct for allegedly filing false reports to protect their colleague, Officer Jason Van Dyke.
Cook County Associate Judge Domenica Stephenson found Gaffney, March and Walsh not guilty of all counts.
Van Dyke, who shot McDonald 16 times, was convicted in October of second-degree murder and 16 counts of aggravated battery.
Van Dyke is scheduled to be sentenced Friday. He faces up to 96 years in prison.
Van Dyke was the only officer to open fire on McDonald. Prosecutors alleged that Gaffney, Walsh and March tried to hide details of the incident by providing or signing off on inaccurate reports to protect Van Dyke.
Prosecutors said a police dashcam video and witness testimony contradicted the officers’ description of the Oct. 20, 2014, encounter. But Stephenson found prosecutors failed to prove any “grand scheme” to provide false information to investigators.
Walsh and Gaffney had reported that the 17-year-old McDonald lunged at Van Dyke with a knife and assaulted other officers.
“We cannot now view the actions of the officers with the benefit of hindsight as to what they should have believed,” Stephenson said in a lengthy ruling.
Walsh, who was Van Dyke’s partner on the night of the shooting, called the ordeal “heart-wrenching for my family.” March and Gallagher declined to comment.
Todd Pugh, an attorney for Walsh, said “the judge showed courage and integrity, unlike the media.”
“There never was a case here,” he said.
Gaffney, Walsh and March opted for a bench trial, leaving their fate to Stephenson, not a jury.
Attorneys offered their closing arguments last month, but Stephenson took time to weigh the evidence. She was presented with thousands of pages of police documents, rival expert testimony, witness accounts and video footage of the shooting and moments that led to it.
The shooting of McDonald, a troubled teen who had been in and out of the juvenile justice system, further widened the chasm between police and Chicago’s African-American population, who make up nearly a third of the city’s population.
It was one of several police shootings around the nation that sparked a broader conversation about policing in black communities.
Prosecutors have asked Judge Vincent Gaughan to sentence Van Dyke to at least 18 years in prison. Van Dyke’s defense team has asked for probation only.
Authorities, concerned about Van Dyke’s safety, are holding him in a county jail in Western Illinois instead of Chicago.
At the heart of both cases is the chilling dashcam video of the incident. It shows that McDonald was veering away from Van Dyke, not lunging toward him, when the officer unleashed a barrage of gunfire.
Will Calloway, the activist who sued to compel the city to release the video of the incident, called Stephenson’s ruling devastating.
“It doesn’t take a rocket science to see what they did is illegal,” Calloway said. He urged Chicagoans to express their outage at the polls next month, when the city will pick a new mayor.
Karen Sheley, director of ACLU of Illinois Police Practices Project, called the acquittals “a painful reminder of the complete lack of structural accountability for police officers in Chicago.”
“The judge’s findings will allow these three officers to escape criminal consequences for their part in covering up the murder of Laquan McDonald,” Sheley said. “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.”
More: Prosecutors in Laquan McDonald coverup trial say Chicago cops failed to obey the law
More: Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke guilty of second-degree murder in 2014 shooting death of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald
More: Prosecutors: Chicago cops betrayed oath in covering up the shooting death of Laquan McDonald
At the trial, prosecutors also presented a series of emails sent and received by supervisors to suggest that there was a broad effort within the department to help Van Dyke justify the shooting. But none of the emails were written by the officers on trial.
Sgt. Daniel Gallagher, who was March’s boss, wrote to Lt. Anthony Wojcik weeks after the incident that police officers are “trained to shoot until the threat is eliminated, defeated or neutralized.”
Wojcik, who is now retired, supervised the McDonald investigation.
Van Dyke did exactly what he was trained to do,” Gallagher wrote. “We should be applauding him, not second-guessing him.”
Ron Hosko, president of the Law Enforcement Legal Defense Fund, asked Wojcik in an April 2015 email: “Tony, any luck making the case go away?”
CONSPIRACY OR MINOR REPORTING ERRORS?
Attorneys for the officers said there was no was conspiracy. At worst, they argued in court, the men made some minor errors in writing their reports. The prosecution, they argued, failed to show that the officers collaborated. They claimed the prosecution was politically motivated.
James McKay, March’s defense attorney, said the prosecution’s case was “ridiculous” and called witness testimony “a crock.” At one point during the trial, he argued that if March had truly wanted to cover for Van Dyke, he would have tossed the video of the shooting “in the middle of Lake Michigan.”
“They didn’t prove anything in this (alleged) conspiracy,” McKay said.
City leaders resisted releasing the video. It was made public 400 days after the shooting as a result of a lawsuit brought by a civil rights activist and a journalist.
The court-ordered release sparked citywide protests and sullied the reputation high-ranking political leaders.
The handling of the case fueled activists’ contention that an unofficial “code of silence” persists in one of the nation’s largest police departments. The code, critics say, allows bad cops to act with brutality without fear of being held accountable.
Special prosecutor Patricia Brown Holmes expressed disappointment in the rule, but expressed hope that the case will help improve the department’s culture.
“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 might land them in an investigation such as this,” she said
Kevin Graham, president of the Chicago police union, scoffed at the notion that officers are willing to look the other way at wrongdoing by their colleagues. He also said that the “relentless” media coverage of the case has had a “chilling effect” on the rank-and-file.
“There is no code of silence,” Graham said.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel fired his police superintendent Garry McCarthy days after the video’s release. Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez was defeated in the Democratic primary months later.
Emanuel announced in September that he wouldn’t run for reelection. McCarthy is among more than a dozen candidates running in next month’s election to replace Emanuel as Chicago’s mayor. The former police superintendent said he respected the ruling.
“From the very beginning I thought this was going to be a very difficult case for prosecutors to prove conspiracy,” McCarthy said.
Toni Preckwinkle, the Cook County Board president and one of the top candidates in the mayoral race, called the judge’s ruling “a brutal reminder that considerable work remains in piecing together the shattered trust between the police and Chicago’s black and brown communities.”
Another top mayoral contender, Illinois Comptroller Susana Mendoza, called the finding “another tragic reminder of the broken culture within the police department and the work we have to do to fix it.”
Emanuel and his police superintendent, Eddie Johnson, offered no opinion in a joint statement on the acquittal.
“While the court process in this case is over, our work to ensure the systemic reform underway at the Chicago Police Department continues,” Emanuel and Johnson said. “CPD is on the road to reform with no off-ramps. Unlike past reforms, these will stand the test of time.”
VIDEO CONTRADICTED OFFICERS’ REPORTS
Officers were responding to reports of a person breaking into vehicles in a truck lot on Chicago’s Southwest Side when they encountered McDonald. Gaffney and his partner, among the first to arrive on the scene, said the teen was wielding the knife.
McDonald, who authorities say had PCP in his system, ignored repeated calls from police to drop the knife. Officers followed the teen for several blocks as he wound his way through city streets. At one point, he scratched the windshield and popped the tire of Gaffney’s squad car.
“It is undisputed and undeniable that McDonald was an armed offender who ignored verbal commands to drop his knife for several blocks and continued to approach a more populous area,” Stephenson said in her ruling.
Van Dyke told investigators that McDonald raised the knife in a menacing manner, and that he backpedaled as the teen approached.
The police video does not support Van Dyke’s account. It shows the officer jumping out of a squad car and opening fire within seconds.
Walsh, who was Van Dyke’s partner that night, said in police documents that he, too, “backed up” as McDonald got to within 12 to 15 feet of the officers. He said the teen “swung the knife toward the officers in an aggressive manner.”
Gaffney, who requested officers equipped with a taser come to the scene, indicated in an official post-incident report that Van Dyke and other officers were battered in the incident. No officers were hurt.
William Fahy, Gaffney’s defense attorney, said the officer might have made minor mistakes in his reporting. But he argued that the prosecution’s theory that Gaffney’s paperwork demonstrated an attempt to cover up “simply doesn’t make sense.”
Fahy said Gaffney did not witness the shooting, and his report of battery against the officers was referring to McDonald popping the tire and scratching the windshield of his squad car.
“I have yet to meet the perfect police officer, and I have yet to see a perfect police report,” Fahy said.
COOPERATING OFFICER CALLED “A RAT”
March, the lead detective, signed off on statements given by officers at the scene who gave accounts that were contradicted by the video.
Earl Briggs, an investigator for the Cook County Medical Examiner’s Officer, testified that March told him that McDonald lunged at Van Dyke before being shot. Briggs said he used the information to fill out a report for his office. The investigator said he read the narrative back to March.
Special assistant prosecutor Ron Safer said the dashcam video of the McDonald shooting belied the claims that officers were in imminent danger. He said the fact that the officers provided nearly identical statements strongly suggests they collaborated to write false reports.
Walsh, Van Dyke and Gaffney all checked a box on their reports that McDonald committed a battery with a deadly weapon against them. Each also checked a box that McDonald used force against them that was likely to cause death or great bodily harm.
“How can three people get that identically wrong unless they have agreed to tell the same story?” Safer asked.
Chicago police Officer Dora Fontaine, who arrived at the scene as the shooting unfolded, testified that March directed her to fill out paperwork saying Van Dyke was injured by McDonald.
Fontaine, who received immunity from prosecutors for her testimony, said she has been shunned by colleagues as a ‘rat, a snitch, a traitor” for cooperating with prosecutors. Defense attorneys and the Chicago’s Fraternal Order of Police, which paid for her legal counsel, said she lacked credibility.
“Dora Fontaine is not a flipper,” McKay said. “She’s a flip-flopper.”
Stephenson noted in her ruling that Fontaine never contacted March or supervisors to point out concerns about what was attributed to her in the department’s official reports.
“The court finds that her trial testimony…is not credible,” Stephenson said.
Follow USA TODAY national correspondent Aamer Madhani on Twitter: @AamerISmad