CHICAGO (UPI) — A judge found three Chicago police officers not guilty Thursday on charges that they covered up for officer Jason Van Dyke after he shot and killed 17-year-old Laquan McDonald in 2014.
Cook County Judge Domenica Stephenson ruled that Detective David March, and officers Joseph Walsh and Thomas Gaffney were not guilty of official misconduct, obstruction of justice and conspiracy to obstruct justice in their probe into Van Dyke’s killing of McDonald.
“This court finds that the state has failed to meet its burden on all charges,” Stephenson said after about an hour dissecting the case. “Defendants are discharged.”
The three officers opted to have Stephenson determine the verdict rather than having a jury hear their case. They faced up to five years in prison if convicted.
“To say these men are not guilty is to say Jason Van Dyke is not guilty,” the Rev. Marvin Hunter, McDonald’s great-uncle, told the Chicago Sun-Times. “This is not justice.”
March’s lawyer, James McKay, said “the truth happened in that courtroom.”
“This case wasn’t even close and these three men were put through hell,” McKay said.
The case hinged on dash cam video of the fatal shooting and police reports. The two accounts appeared to present contradicting evidence, with the video showing McDonald walking away from officers when Van Dyke, who is white, fired shots at the black teen. The police reports said the teen approached the officers with a knife.
March was assigned to investigate the shooting and concluded it was justified, stating the dash cam video supported Van Dyke’s version of the encounter. Walsh, Van Dyke’s partner, and Gaffney were also at the scene.
Stephenson said the difference between the report and the video didn’t equate to a coverup.
“Two people, with two different vantage points, can witness the same event, but describe it differently,” she said. “This does not necessarily mean that one of them is lying — rather it could be an indication that they are describing what they saw from their vantage point, with their own perceptions.”
Officer Dora Fontaine testified she never saw McDonald threaten any officers, but March told her to file a report stating he had.
“Other officers were calling me a rat, a snitch, a traitor, they wouldn’t back me up,” she said. “If I was on a call-in and needed assistance, some officers felt strong enough to say that I didn’t deserve to be helped.”
Stephenson called Fontaine’s credibility into question, noting she “tried to minimize” McDonald’s behavior in 2014, but later said she told the FBI the state’s attorney and the inspector general that the teen approached the officers while waving the knife and making “attacking movements.”
Ultimately Stephenson said it was “undisputed and undeniable” that McDonald was an armed offender who continued to move toward more populous areas after being confronted by police.
Van Dyke was convicted of second-degree murder for the shooting in October and is set to be sentenced Friday. Prosecutors seek at least 18 years in prison.
Reporting by Daniel Uria
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