A judge on Thursday acquitted three Chicago officers of trying to cover up the 2014 shooting of Laquan McDonald, dismissing as just one perspective the shocking dashcam video of the black teenager’s death that led to protests, a federal investigation of the police department and the rare murder conviction of an officer.
In casting off the prosecution’s entire case, Judge Domenica Stephenson seemed to accept many of the same defense arguments that were rejected in October by jurors who convicted officer Jason Van Dyke of second-degree murder and aggravated battery. He is scheduled to be sentenced Friday.
The judge said the video showed only one viewpoint of the confrontation and that there was no indication the officers tried to hide evidence.
“The evidence shows just the opposite,” she said. She singled out how they preserved the graphic video at the heart of the case.
McDonald’s family questioned how the two cases could produce such different decisions. His great uncle, the Rev. Marvin Hunter, told reporters that the verdict means “that if you are a police officer you can lie, cheat and steal.”
“To say that these men are not guilty is to say that Jason Van Dyke is not guilty.” He added: “It is a sad day for America.”
Prosecutor Ron Safer tried to put a positive spin on the verdict.
“This case was a case where the code of silence was on trial,” he said, referring to the long tradition that officers don’t report wrongdoing by their colleagues. “The next officer is going to think twice about filing a false police report. Do they want to go through this?”
Special prosecutor Patricia Brown Holmes said she hoped the verdict would not make officers reluctant to come forward when they see misconduct. Her key witness, officer Dora Fontaine, described how she had become a pariah in the department and was called a “rat” by fellow officers.
The shooting has provoked periodic street protests since 2015, when the video came to light, and the acquittals could renew that movement.
“We will be down here tomorrow by the hundreds, and we will cry out for justice for Laquan,” activist Eric Russell said.
The trial was watched closely by law enforcement and critics of the department, which has long had a reputation for condoning police brutality.
Officer Joseph Walsh, officer Thomas Gaffney and detective David March were accused of conspiracy, official misconduct and obstruction of justice. All but Gaffney have since left the department. They asked the judge, rather than a jury, to hear the evidence.
After the verdict, Walsh would say only that the ordeal of being charged and tried was “heart-breaking for my family, a year and a half.”
In her ruling , the judge rejected prosecution arguments that the video demonstrated officers were lying when they described McDonald as moving and posing a threat even after he was shot.
“An officer could have reasonably believed an attack was imminent,” she said. “It was borne out in the video that McDonald continued to move after he fell to the ground” and refused to relinquish a knife.
The video appeared to show the teen collapsing in a heap after the first few shots and moving in large part because bullets kept striking his body for 10 more seconds.
The judge said it’s not unusual for two witnesses to describe events in starkly different ways. “It does not necessarily mean that one is lying,” she said.
The judge also noted several times that the vantage points of various officers who witnessed the shooting were “completely different.” That could explain why their accounts did not sync with what millions of people saw in the video.
Both Van Dyke’s trial and that of the three other officers hinged on the video, which showed Van Dyke opening fire within seconds of getting out of his police SUV and continuing to shoot the 17-year-old while he was lying on the street. Police were responding to a report of a male who was breaking into trucks and stealing radios on the city’s South Side.
Prosecutors alleged that Gaffney, March and Walsh, who was Van Dyke’s partner, submitted false reports about what happened to try to prevent or shape any criminal investigation of the shooting. Among other things, they said the officers falsely claimed that Van Dyke shot McDonald after McDonald aggressively swung the knife at the officers and that he kept shooting the teen because McDonald was trying to get up still armed with the knife.
McDonald had used the knife to puncture a tire on Gaffney’s police vehicle, but the video shows that he did not swing it at the officers before Van Dyke shot him and that he appeared to be incapacitated after falling to the ground.
Attorneys for Gaffney, Walsh and March used the same strategy that the defense used at Van Dyke’s trial by placing all the blame on McDonald.
It was McDonald’s refusal to drop his knife and other threatening actions that “caused these officers to see what they saw,” March’s attorney, James McKay, told the court. “This is a case about law and order (and) about Laquan McDonald not following any laws that night.”
The lawyers ridiculed the decision to charge the three officers, saying they merely wrote what they observed or, in March’s case, what the other officers told him they saw. And they said there was no evidence that the officers conspired to get their stories straight.
“The state wants you to criminalize police reports,” McKay bellowed at one point.
City Hall released the video to the public in November 2015 — 13 months after the shooting — and acted only because a judge ordered it to do so. The charges against Van Dyke were not announced until the day of the video’s release.
The case cost the police superintendent his job and was widely seen as the reason the county’s top prosecutor was voted out of office a few months later. It was also thought to be a major factor in Mayor Rahm Emmanuel’s decision not to seek a third term.
The accusations triggered a federal investigation, resulting in a blistering report that found Chicago officers routinely used excessive force and violated the rights of residents, particularly minorities. The city implemented a new policy that requires video of fatal police shootings to be released within 60 days, accelerated a program to equip all officers with body cameras and adopted other reforms to change the way police shootings are investigated.