CHICAGO (CBS) — Three current and former Chicago Police officers have been acquitted of criminal charges accusing them of conspiring to cover up the circumstances of the fatal shooting of Laquan McDonald in 2014 in an effort to protect fellow officer Jason Van Dyke.
Cook County Judge Domenica Stephenson found former officer Joseph Walsh, Officer Thomas Gaffney and ex-detective David March not guilty of felony counts of conspiracy, obstruction of justice, and official misconduct.
“The state did not prove beyond a reasonable doubt that there was an agreement between any of these defendants or others, or any act in furtherance of their agreement,” she said. “This court finds that the state has failed to meet its burden on all charges.”
In announcing her verdict, Stephenson said prosecutors did not prove the statements the three officers made in official reports on the shooting were false. She also said deciding the case was not a simple matter of comparing the video of the shooting to official police reports, noting the dashcam video was not filmed by the officers.
“Looking at all the reports together the officers were able to accurately detail the events of that evening,” she said.
Despite video of the shooting appearing to contradict official police reports about the shooting, Stephenson said, “we cannot now view the actions of the officers with the benefit of hindsight as to what they should have believed.”
“McDonald was an armed offender who ignored commands to drop the knife,” she said.
She said discrepancies between the video and the police reports of the shooting does not mean the officers were lying about the incident, but simply offering their own viewpoint of what happened. She repeatedly stated that the video does not show the viewpoint of Gaffney or Walsh, who were at the scene.
The judge also noted that March, who was not at the scene but was the lead investigator of the shooting, did not state in his reports that McDonald lunged at Van Dyke.
Stephenson also said a key prosecution witness, Officer Dora Fontaine, “tried to minimize” McDonald’s behavior before he was shot, and gave conflicting testimony on what happened that night. She also said she did not believe Fontaine’s allegation that Fontaine attributed a false statement to her in his report on the shooting.
“The court finds that her testimony regarding this issue is not credible,” she said. “The court does find that Fontaine told March that McDonald did raise his right arm toward Van Dyke, as if he was attacking him.”
Stephenson announced her verdict more than a month after the officers’ bench trial wrapped up. She twice delayed announcing her verdict, as she deliberated the officers’ fate, but did not offer an explanation for the delays.
Prosecutors and defense attorneys presented their closing arguments in the case on Dec. 6, following five days of testimony over a span of two weeks.
Prosecutors had said reports written by the three officers about the fatal shooting of Laquan McDonald included lies designed to protect Officer Jason Van Dyke, who fired the 16 shots. Van Dyke was convicted of second-degree murder and 16 counts of aggravated battery in October, and faces sentencing on Friday.
Walsh, Gaffney, and March avoided taking the stand during their trial. Instead the defense called only one witness, who said there’s no way reports filed in 2014 were falsified.
Prosecutors argued the officers altered facts in official reports to help cover for Van Dyke.
Prosecutors contend that Walsh, who was Van Dyke’s partner, and Gaffney, a patrolman, wrote among other things that McDonald assaulted Van Dyke. Gaffney claimed Van Dyke and other officers had been injured. Further, Walsh supported Van Dyke’s claim that McDonald lunged at the two of them with a knife and, even after bullets knocked McDonald down, he “attempted to get up while still armed with a knife.”
None of these details was apparent on the dashcam video that captured the shooting and has been shown on news shows countless times since a judge ordered the city to make it public a year after the shooting.
Prosecutors say March — a detective who investigated the shooting and who along with Walsh has since left the department — not only cleared Van Dyke of any wrongdoing by saying the video matched witness accounts, but also told another officer to include false information in her report. Gaffney remains on the force but has been suspended.
While no other officers have been charged, the special prosecutor, Patricia Brown Holmes, said it is clear that others on the force, including brass, wanted Van Dyke to be cleared.
Defense attorneys have dismissed any talk of conspiracy, calling the charges against Gaffney, March, and Walsh a policitally-based sham.
March and Walsh resigned from the force after the city’s inspector general recommended they be fired for making false statements about the shooting. Gaffney has been suspended without pay.
Van Dyke has lost his certification as a police officer due to the verdict, and the Chicago Police Board is moving forward with the department’s effort to fire him.