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Judge delays ruling on Laquan McDonald conspiracy case to Jan. 15

From left, former Detective David March, Chicago Police Officer Thomas Gaffney and ex-Officer Joseph Walsh appear at a pre-trial hearing at the Leighton Criminal Court Building in Chicago. | Zbigniew Bzdak/Chicago Tribune pool file photo

Three Chicago Police officers accused of covering up for fellow officer Jason Van Dyke are set to learn their fate in mid-January.

Judge Domenica Stephenson on Wednesday set Jan. 15 as the date she would issue a ruling on the conspiracy case against Officer Thomas Gaffney and ex-Officer Joseph Walsh and Det. David March.

Following a bench trial that included five days of testimony that spanned two weeks, Stephenson had said she would rule on the case Wednesday.

The judge did not give a reason for delaying her ruling. The three officers face counts of conspiracy, obstruction of justice and official misconduct for allegedly falsifying information on reports about the 2014 shooting of Laquan McDonald to make it appear that Van Dyke was justified when he shot the 17-year-old 16 times.

Van Dyke was convicted of second-degree murder and 16 counts of aggravated battery during a separate trial that ended in October.

After Van Dyke was charged with first-degree murder in late 2015, a group of activists and civil rights lawyers petitioned the court to assign a special prosecutor to investigate the Chicago Police Department’s handling of the McDonald investigation.

After a year-long investigation, a team led by former federal prosecutor Patricia Brown Holmes announced charges against the three officers and included a half-dozen other officers as unindicted co-conspirators.

Prosecutors have alleged Walsh, who was standing next to Van Dyke as Van Dyke opened fire, and Gaffney, who was one of the first officers to confront McDonald the night of the shooting, made false statements in reports to make it appear that the teen had been making aggressive moves toward Van Dyke when he was shot.

March led the investigation and is accused of coaching witnesses to make statements that backed up Van Dyke’s account of the shooting.

Those accounts are contradicted, prosecutors say, by dashboard-camera video that was key evidence in Van Dyke’s murder trial, which appears to show McDonald walking away from the officers as Van Dyke opens fire.

In the months after, March filed reports clearing Van Dyke of wrongdoing.

Lawyers for the three officers have said the purported lies in reports amount to small errors at worst and that the investigation reached a plausible conclusion that Van Dyke was defending himself when he gunned down a knife-wielding McDonald.

Emails uncovered by the Holmes investigation showed March’s supervisors shared information and investigative files about the case with union representatives and a Washington, D.C., nonprofit that funds legal defenses of police officers.

Those officers, Sgt. Daniel Gallagher and Lt. Anthony Wojcik, have not been charged, but both retired after a city inspector general issued a report on the shooting that recommended they be fired.

March and Walsh both resigned from CPD after the inspector general began investigating the case. Gaffney, who remains on unpaid leave, is not facing any disciplinary action, and the IG report did not recommend firing him.

The city Police Board is set to begin termination hearings for four officers tied to allegations of misconduct surrounding the McDonald shooting. They are Sgt. Stephen Franko and Officers Daphne Sebastian, Ricardo Viramontes and Janet Mondragon. Termination proceedings for Van Dyke also are under way but have not been scheduled.