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Witness to McDonald shooting: ‘If I stay quiet, then I’m part of the cover-up’

Video by Sun-Times Staff

Jose Torres and his son happened to be parked just two car-lengths away from Laquan McDonald when the 17-year-old fell to the ground amid a hail of gunshots from Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke in 2014, and that twist of fate made him a key witness in Van Dyke’s trial for McDonald’s murder.

The Southwest Side resident was the last witness called at Van Dyke’s trial; his son was among the first to take the stand.

On Thursday, in the trial of three of Van Dyke’s fellow police officers charged with conspiracy for allegedly obstructing the investigation of the McDonald shooting, Torres testified again about the night of the shooting.

He said a CPD officer waved him away from the scene just minutes after the gunfire stopped.

Torres testimony served two purposes for prosecutors in the conspiracy trial of ex-Det. David March, former Officer Joseph Walsh and Officer Thomas Gaffney.

Torres contradicted police reports that McDonald was aggressive. And he was used to help show police investigators weren’t interested in talking to witnesses who might contradict that story.

Torres testified he went to the city’s then police watchdog agency, the Independent Police Review Authority, days after the shooting after seeing news reports where a police union spokesman claimed McDonald “lunged” at officers with a knife.

“It took me a few days to work up the strength, the nerve to call somebody and report it,” Torres told Special Prosecutor Patricia Brown Holmes. “I couldn’t sleep. It was eating away at me, and my conscience.

“I thought if I stay quiet, then I’m part of the cover-up and I couldn’t live with myself.”

Torres’ will be among the last witnesses for the prosecution. The bench trial will resume Tuesday, as Judge Domenica Stephenson weighs a key ruling on whether to allow emails by police brass discussing the shooting into evidence.

During an at times combative cross-examination, Jim McKay, the lawyer for March, the lead detective on the McDonald investigation, questioned why Torres didn’t reach out to the state’s attorney’s office or the FBI if he believed police were lying about McDonald’s shooting, noting that Torres didn’t even call 911 that night.

“The police was already there. You call 911, the police come,” Torres said, matter of factly.

The trial hit a snag Thursday as Holmes’ team tried to call their last witness, a CPD supervisor in charge of the department’s e-mail system who was subpoenaed to authenticate about a dozen emails that prosecutors say show March’s supervisors were discussing the shooting and trying to steer the conclusions to clear Van Dyke of wrongdoing.

Lawyers for each of the men argued that prosecutors so far had failed to provide any evidence of a conspiracy. The emails, which were sent by other members of the department, would be hearsay without proof that there was an agreement between the three co-defendants or others to whitewash the Van Dyke investigation, the defense argued.

“The state has failed to provide to this court evidence that David March ever met Mr. Walsh and Mr. Gaffney,” McKay said. “They haven’t linked up that there’s any agreement between any of these three men, and now they want to put in email by authors nowhere near this courtroom?”

After about an hour of back-and-forth, Stephenson reviewed the emails in chambers and said she would rule on whether to admit them when the trial resumes Tuesday. The judge is hearing the case alone, not a jury.

The e-mails include a message in which March’s supervisor early on in the investigation mischaracterized the images on dashboard camera video of the shooting, and said investigators should be “applauding (Van Dyke) not second guessing him.” If the judge rules against prosecutors, it would severely hurt their case.