Judge clears three Chicago police officers on all charges in Laquan McDonald case
By Erick Johnson
Three Chicago police officers accused of covering up the shooting of teenager Laquan McDonald were acquitted of all charges on Thursday, leveling a serious blow to activists and Black leaders who were riding a wave of momentum with the conviction of Officer Jason Van Dyke more than three months ago.
The historic case brought a crushing end to high hopes one day before the start of the long holiday weekend honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Black leaders remain concerned that the verdict will affect Van Dyke’s prison sentence that will be announced tomorrow in another courtroom at the Leighton Criminal Courts building.
The police misconduct trial came to an end in a packed courtroom, where spectators were silent as Judge Domenica Stephenson read the stunning verdict. She ruled that prosecutors failed to prove on all levels that Officers David March, Joseph Walsh and Thomas Gaffney worked together to falsify police reports after Van Dyke shot McDonald 16 times on October 14, 2014.
The three officers were accused of conspiracy, police misconduct and obstruction of justice in a bench trial that ended two months ago at the Leighton Criminal Courts building on the West Side. They walked out of the courtroom free men who escaped a justice system that convicted one of their own last October. Meanwhile Black leaders and activists are concerned that the verdict pushed back a movement that was making gains to change the Chicago Police Department’s notorious culture and its brotherhood code of silence.
In her ruling, Stephenson picked apart the state’s argument, calling Special Prosecutor Patricia Holmes’ conspiracy charges against the officers “speculation” and emails that aimed to show the alleged coordinated effort “irrelevant.”
Although there was a dash cam video of the shooting, Stephenson said it does not show the vantage point of the officers, who may have had a different perspective of the shooting.
She said Officer Dora Fontaine—the state’s witness in the Van Dyke—lacked credibility in her testimony after she said that McDonald raised his arm with the knife. Stephenson noted that Fontaine at first tried to “minimize “ McDonald’s actions, but eventually said she had her hand on her gun during the encounter.
After the verdict was announced, sobs erupted from the wives and relatives of the officers. They then applauded while Black leaders and spectators filed out of the courtroom silent and looking deflated. Activist William Calloway, who fought to get the video of the shooting released, stood quietly in the hallway with a group of spectators who looked shocked by the verdict.
Alderman Roderick Sawyer released a statement in response to the verdict.
“I am deeply disappointed by this verdict. There is no circumstance under which the actions of these officers was justifiable or appropriate. The decision by the judge is a blow to the cause of police accountability, and will serve to further undermine trust between the CPD and the Black community. We have so much work still to do.”
After the verdict was announced, Walsh emerged from the courtroom appearing relieved while receiving handshakes and congratulatory greetings from several people. A swarm of officers from the Cook County Sheriffs officers surrounded him.
One Black woman said on the elevator that Black Chicago took a “leap backwards” from the verdict after taking “six steps forward” with Van Dyke’s conviction.
Downstairs, McDonald’s grand uncle, Marvin Hunter, spoke before throngs of media organizations that covered the verdict.
Hunter is concerned that the verdict will persuade Judge Vincent Gaughan to give Van Dyke a lighter sentence at tomorrow’s 9 a.m. hearing. Van Dyke last October was convicted of second degree murder and 16 counts of aggravated battery with a firearm. It was the first time in 50 years that an officer was brought to justice for a shooting committed on duty.
“I am asking everyone in the city of Chicago, everyone in the county of Cook to be in this courtroom so that this judge and this world will know that we’re looking for a sentence that adequately fits the crime in which Jason Van Dyke has committed.”
The following are some of the comments and statements sent to the Chicago Crusader Newspaper after the sentencing on Friday, January 18, 2019.
Commissioner Johnson reacts to not-guilty verdict in cases of three other police officers in the murder of Laquan McDonald
CHICAGO – Commissioner Brandon Johnson (D-1) released the following statement in wake of the not guilty verdict issued by Cook County Judge Domenica Stephenson in favor of Det. David March, officers Joseph Walsh and Thomas Gaffney who were accused of official misconduct, obstruction of justice and conspiracy to obstruct justice.
“Today, Laquan McDonald has been victimized all over again,” Johnson said. “A crime was committed, a person has been found guilty of murder, and even though witnesses, some of whom were police officers themselves, said otherwise, this judge found these men not guilty of what everyone knows was a cover-up by the Emanuel administration and the Chicago Police Department.
“They lied. They covered it up. And, each of them is as guilty Jason Van Dyke, who fired 16 shots into McDonald’s body and Mayor Emanuel whose administration sought to hide this murder from the public,” he said. “We must work to put an end to the culture that protects corruption and abuse but seeks to punish and ostracize those who expose it.
“We don’t need a cop academy to teach this sort of corruption, abuse and misuse of the public’s trust.”
Coalition for Police Contracts Accountability Responds to Laquan McDonald Conspiracy Verdict
Today, retired Chicago Police Detective David March, retired Officer Joseph Walsh and suspended Officer Thomas Gaffney were found not guilty of covering up the October 2014 police shooting and murder of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald.
Today’s verdict is a devastating step backward. Laquan’s murder has become a part of the fabric of our city. The verdict today does not serve justice in wake of the senseless loss of a young life. We cannot improve the safety of our communities if our police force is not held accountable for its actions and the very real culture of the code of silence goes unpunished.
Laquan’s death and the resulting trials have forever changed the city of Chicago. Today’s verdict is a brutal reminder that considerable work remains in piecing together the shattered trust between the police and Chicago’s Black and Brown communities. I remain committed to working with all stakeholders including the young community activists who continue to fight for justice.
For more information on Toni’s criminal justice platform, visit: https://toniforchicago.com/criminal-justice/
Posted Friday, January 19, 2019
Chicago Urban League Releases Statement on Police Cover-up Verdict
Chicago Urban League Interim President and CEO Barbara Lumpkin released the following statement regarding the acquittal of three Chicago police officers accused of a cover-up in the LaQuan McDonald shooting.
“Accountability for police conduct is not just the responsibility of any one officer. It must be rooted into our systems and processes to be truly transformative for our city. This trial presented an opportunity to impose some accountability for police officers who maintain the code of silence that has enabled inequitable policing in Chicago. It is disappointing and disheartening to know that, even with an apparent conflict between officer statements and video proof, that opportunity was missed with this verdict. The Chicago Urban League will continue to support efforts at real police reform and equitable and fair treatment of African Americans and other underserved communities.”