The unprecedented conspiracy trial of three Chicago Police officers began Tuesday with the claim that three men sworn to protect all of Chicago’s citizens set out in 2014 to protect only one: Jason Van Dyke.
Then, a team of prosecutors set out to bury Joseph Walsh, David March and Thomas Gaffney in piles of paperwork that form the centerpiece of a new trial now underway that revolves around the 2014 shooting of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald.
Lawyers for the three officers fought back with arguments designed to minimize inconsistencies in the more than a dozen reports at the heart of the case, casting the three men as good cops who confronted an out-of-control teenager.
“This case is about law and order,” James McKay, March’s attorney, said. “It’s about Laquan McDonald not following any laws that night. There must be some individual responsibility attached to McDonald.”
The strategy of putting the dead teen on trial failed to stop a jury from convicting Van Dyke of second-degree murder last month.
The trial of Van Dyke’s fellow officers in an alleged cover-up—one that Special Prosecutor Patricia Brown Holmes’ team has said also involved higher ranking officers who have not been charged — serves as a sequel of sorts.
“Instead of of serving and protecting all citizens of Chicago, the defendants tried to protect only one, Jason Van Dyke, by trying to create a false justification for the shooting of Laquan McDonald by Jason Van Dyke,” Holmes said in her opening statement.
The trial of Walsh, March and Gaffney on charges of conspiracy, obstruction of justice and official misconduct promises less focus on the shocking video of Van Dyke firing 16 shots at McDonald, and more on the reams of dry investigation notes and reports generated in the days and months after the shooting.
The notorious video wasn’t even played at all the first day of the trial of the three officers. In the Van Dyke trial, prosecutors waited all of 15 minutes before rolling the tape.
The three men now on trial played different roles the night of the shooting. Walsh was Van Dyke’s partner. March is the detective who oversaw the investigation. And Gaffney, who is the only one of the three still on the force, is the first officer to encounter McDonald that night but never even saw the shooting —as his defense attorney, William Fahy, pointed out.
Gaffney had even told a federal grand jury he didn’t feel threatened by McDonald that night —after all, he was in his police SUV, according to prosecutors. But in an apparent contradiction, Fahy told Cook County Judge Domenica Stephenson that Gaffney at one point considered opening fire during his own confrontation with McDonald, ultimately making “a split-second decision not to use force.”
Stephenson alone is hearing the case, not a jury, and will decide the men’s fate.
The nuances required to fight the “paper case” against March, Gaffney and Walsh, played out in the marathon questioning of Joseph Perfetti, director of the Records Services Division at the Chicago Police Department. The usual rote authentication of records—a question-and-answer session in which Perfetti essentially read off a few key lines from more than a dozen reports entered into evidence by prosecutors—dragged on over three hours, as defense lawyers grilled Perfetti about the police reporting software and rules.
The various reports list Van Dyke, Walsh and Gaffney as “victims” and say McDonald raised his right arm toward Van Dyke “as if attacking” Van Dyke — claims directly contradicted by video of the shooting. One report, prepared by March, described McDonald’s fatal encounter with Van Dyke as “criminal attacked officer then that officer killed criminal.”
The cross-examination of the prosecutors’ second witness, an investigator for the Cook County medical examiner, showed how hard the defense is working to discredit tiny yet crucial details in paperwork that prosecutors repeatedly called the “crux” of the case.
In a lengthy, at times combative cross, McKay questioned how the description of McDonald having “lunged” at the officers before Van Dyke opened fire landed in a report written by Medical Examiner investigator Earl Briggs. The verb presents problems for the defense: dashcam video of the shooting shows McDonald striding toward the officers but taking no aggressive action.
Briggs testified he got the narrative from March, who called in the information the night of the shooting. McKay grilled Briggs on small details in his report and repeatedly implied that the caller wasn’t even March at all.
“Are you telling us that this person, who claimed to be Detective March, used the word ‘lunged?'” McKay asked.
“Yes,” Briggs said.
Later, under questioning from prosecutors, Briggs noted that the caller not only said he was March but provided his badge number and duty assignment.
The trial, expected to last into next week, is set to resume Wednesday.