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A look at the key players in trial of alleged cover-up in McDonald shooting

In this Oct. 20, 2014 file image taken from dash-cam video provided by the Chicago Police Department, Laquan McDonald (right) walks down the street moments before being fatally shot by Chicago Police officer Jason Van Dyke in Chicago.
| Chicago Police Department, distributed by the Associated Press

The trial of Joseph Walsh, Thomas Gaffney and David March will focus on the hours after officer Jason Van Dyke fired 16 shots at Laquan McDonald. Van Dyke’s trial earlier this fall ended with a rare murder conviction of a Chicago Police officer involved in an on-duty shooting, and the trial of three officers accused in an alleged coverup promises a look at how the department handled the investigation of the McDonald shooting. Here are the key players in the trial, which is set to open Tuesday.

Judge Domenica Stephenson

The three officers have opted for a bench trial, meaning Stephenson will hear the evidence and decide the verdict. For years, she was known previously in the Criminal Courts Building as a hard-working, if low-profile, assistant state’s attorney. Stephenson’s low-key demeanor on the bench is a contrast to the more gregarious personality of Judge Vincent Gaughan, who presided over Van Dyke’s trial. A career prosecutor before she was appointed to the bench, Stephenson worked with March’s attorney, Jim McKay, then a well-known Cook County prosecutor, on the 2000 trial of three men charged with the murder of community activist Arnold Mireles. Mireles was slain after reporting a bad landlord to the city, and the trial resulted in conviction of the three men.

Patricia Brown Holmes

Holmes was a federal prosecutor before winning appointment as a Cook County judge, where she presided over cases in juvenile court. She left the bench for private practice, rising in the public eye soon after when she was appointed to oversee the investigation of Burr Oak Cemetery, which was then mired in a scandal involving the desecration of remains by cemetery employees. So far, Holmes has received high marks from the activists who called for a special prosecutor to investigate the shooting for misconduct by officers other than Van Dyke. After a year-long probe, a special grand jury handed up charges against three officers, but Holmes’ team has outlined a conspiracy that appears to have involved at least a half-dozen other officers.

Special Prosecutor Patricia Brown Holmes at a pretrial hearing for Chicago Police Officer Thomas Gaffney, former Detective David March and ex-officer Joseph Walsh with Judge Domenica A. Stephenson at Leighton Criminal Court Building in Chicago earlier thi
Special Prosecutor Patricia Brown Holmes at a pretrial hearing for Chicago Police Officer Thomas Gaffney, former Detective David March and ex-officer Joseph Walsh with Judge Domenica A. Stephenson at Leighton Criminal Court Building in Chicago earlier this month. | Zbigniew Bzdak/Chicago Tribune pool photo

Ronald Safer

Holmes’ law partner, Safer also was a federal prosecutor who led the cases against legendary gang leaders Larry Hoover and Jeff Fort. After entering private practice, Safer has also worked pro bono to get people out of prison, assisting in wrongful conviction cases that have resulted in the exoneration of eight defendants, most recently, Arthur Brown, who spent 29 years in prison for an arson fire that killed two people. Safer also was tapped by the city in 2013 to probe the CPD’s dysfunctional system for handling police misconduct — which included a suggestion the department fire any officer who obeyed the so-called “code of silence” by lying for a fellow officer.

Attorney Ron Safer, far left, makes arguments for the special prosecutor’s team during a pre-trial hearing for Chicago Police Officer Thomas Gaffney, former Detective David March and ex-officer Joseph Walsh with Judge Domenica A. Stephenson at Leighton Cr
Attorney Ron Safer, far left, makes arguments for the special prosecutor’s team during a pre-trial hearing for Chicago Police Officer Thomas Gaffney, former Detective David March and ex-officer Joseph Walsh with Judge Domenica A. Stephenson at Leighton Criminal Court Building in Chicago last month. | Zbigniew Bzdak/Chicago Tribune pool photo

Officer Thomas Gaffney

Gaffney and his partner, Joseph McElligott, were the first officers to respond to the 911 call that McDonald was allegedly breaking into trucks parked on a lot on the Southwest Side. Gaffney stayed behind the wheel as McElligott tailed McDonald on foot, and in grand jury testimony, Gaffney said he swerved his police SUV to cut McDonald off after following him for several blocks — and did nothing even after McDonald tumbled into the car and stabbed a tire and the windshield. Gaffney wasn’t in position to see how McDonald’s encounter with police ended — with Van Dyke firing 16 shots at the teen — but he was charged in the conspiracy case because he filed reports that stated he, Walsh and Van Dyke had been “assaulted” and “injured” by McDonald. Gaffney is the only one of the three defendants who didn’t retire from the force after he was charged. Co-defendants March and Walsh retired after a 2016 report on the shooting by the city’s inspector general, who recommended the department fire them. But Gaffney’s name wasn’t on the list of 11 officers who the IG tapped for firing, though he remains on unpaid leave while the case is pending.

Chicago Police Officer Thomas Gaffney attends a pre-trial hearing with Judge Domenica A. Stephenson at the Leighton Criminal Court Building in Chicago earlier this month. | Zbigniew Bzdak/Chicago Tribune pool photo
Chicago Police Officer Thomas Gaffney attends a pre-trial hearing with Judge Domenica A. Stephenson at the Leighton Criminal Court Building in Chicago earlier this month. | Zbigniew Bzdak/Chicago Tribune pool photo

Detective David March

A veteran homicide detective, March was assigned to investigate the McDonald shooting. According to prosecutors, he coached at least one officer who was at the scene, Dora Fontaine, into making statements that McDonald was making aggressive moves toward Walsh and Van Dyke when Van Dyke opened fire. March retired from the CPD after a 2016 report by the IG recommended he be fired.

Former Chicago Police Detective David March, left, walks with his defense attorney, Jim McKay, out of the Leighton Criminal Court Building in August. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times file photo
Former Chicago Police Detective David March, left, walks with his defense attorney, Jim McKay, out of the Leighton Criminal Court Building in August. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times file photo

Officer Joseph Walsh

Walsh was Van Dyke’s partner, though the night of the McDonald shooting was only the second time the two men had worked together. In his reports, and on the witness stand in Van Dyke’s trial, Walsh said that knife-wielding McDonald was advancing on the two officers and appeared to be raising the knife — a scene Walsh acted out in front of the jury. Walsh testified for the prosecution in Van Dyke’s case, though it’s not clear whether he will take the stand in his own defense.

Ex-Chicago Police Officer Joseph Walsh, left, exits the Leighton Criminal Courthouse earlier this year with his defense attorney, Thomas Breen. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times
Ex-Chicago Police Officer Joseph Walsh, left, exits the Leighton Criminal Courthouse earlier this year with his defense attorney, Thomas Breen. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

James McKay

March’s lawyer was one of the top prosecutors in the state’s attorney’s office when he left to start his own practice. He’s also represented a number of cops facing charges misconduct cases, and in September, won an acquittal for Keli McGrath, a police dispatcher who shot a woman during a “road rage” incident.

Thomas Breen

Walsh’s lawyer is a Chicago legend, known for his rapport with juries — and judges — and a string of high-profile cases. A former prosecutor, Breen for decades has ranked among the city’s most respected defense lawyers, and his cases have ranged from the defense of high-ranking mobsters in the “Family Secrets” trial to the post-conviction efforts that won freedom for Rolando Cruz.

William Fahy

Gaffney’s attorney is a former prosecutor turned defense attorney with a number of police officer clients, including Anthony Abbate, a CPD officer charged in the off-duty beating of a female bartender. A federal jury in a civil case against Abbate and the city found the veteran officer benefitted from a “code of silence” within CPD in which fellow officers failed to investigate the bartender’s complaint.