A Cook County judge is set to rule Thursday in the trial of three Chicago Police officers charged with falsifying reports to back up fellow officer Jason Van Dyke’s account of the 2014 Laquan McDonald shooting.
Judge Domenica Stephenson’s has twice moved the date to issue her finding in the bench trial of the two beat officers who were at the scene of the Southwest Side shooting and the detective who led the investigation that cleared Van Dyke of wrongdoing. Thursday’s court date falls the day before Van Dyke is set to be sentenced for second-degree murder in another courtroom.
Video of the shooting that was key evidence in Van Dyke’s trial figured also in the case against Detective David March, Officer Thomas Gaffney, and Van Dyke’s partner the night of the shooting, officer Joseph Walsh. After the charges against Van Dyke were announced in late 2015, a group of civil rights lawyers and community activists called for the appointment of a special prosecutor to probe how the Chicago Police handled the investigation of the McDonald shooting.
Flint Taylor, a prominent civil rights lawyer who petitioned the court to appoint a special prosecutor to be appointed to probe the McDonald shooting once Van Dyke had been charged, said Wednesday he wasn’t sure what to expect when Stephenson makes her finding.
“If past is prologue, I’d be very concerned about how the judge is going to rule,” Taylor said, citing the outcome in other bench trials involving police misconduct that have taken place in recent years at the Leighton Criminal Court Building.
In 2015, Dante Servin walked free on involuntary manslaughter charges after Judge Dennis Porter ruled that the police officer should have faced more serious charges in the fatal shooting of 22-year-old Rekia Boyd. The same year, Judge Diane Cannon acquitted former police Cmdr. Glenn Evans on charges he forced his gun down the throat of a suspect, with Cannon stating the presence of the suspect’s DNA on Evans’ gun was of “fleeting relevance” to the case.
“On the other hand I think the evidence is there that this was a conspiracy,” Taylor said. “I thought there were other folks of higher rank who were implicated in this case, but what we have are these three line cops who are taking the fall for covering for Van Dyke.”
Reports the officers filed in the case stated that McDonald was moving threateningly toward Van Dyke and Walsh when Van Dyke opened fire on the knife-wielding teenager near the intersection of 41st Avenue and South Pulaski Road, and that McDonald was trying to get up from the pavement as Van Dyke continued firing until his magazine was empty. On dashboard camera video, it appears McDonald is veering away from the officers as Van Dyke begins shooting, and quickly slumps to the pavement after the first shots.
Gaffney was one of the first officers to encounter McDonald, responding to a trucking company parking lot where McDonald was reportedly breaking into vehicles. Gaffney drove his police SUV alongside McDonald as his partner walked behind the 17-year-old McDonald, trailing the teen for blocks while radioing for backup with a Taser. When Gaffney swerved the vehicle in front of McDonald to try and block the teen, but he and his partner took no other aggressive action, even after McDonald stabbed at the windshield and one of the vehicles. Gaffney, who did not witness the shooting, nonetheless filed an “officer battery report,” and ticked a box that indicated McDonald was a threat to the other officers’ lives.
According to trial testimony, after the shooting, officers at the scene gathered with Walsh, March and Van Dyke at Area 1 headquarters and discussed what had happened, including watching the now-famous dashcam video, before giving statements to March that prosecutors say are suspiciously identical and described McDonald as making aggressive moves toward Van Dyke and Walsh.
Special Prosecutor Patricia Brown Holmes, a former federal prosecutor and Cook County judge, charged the three officers in 2016 after a year-long probe, though in pre-trial motions she spelled out the involvement of March’s supervisors, Sgt. Daniel Gallagher and Lt. Anthony Wojcik, who exchanged emails during the investigation that included misrepresentations of witness statements and what was on the video. After closing out the investigation and clearing Van Dyke, Gallagher and Wojcik also were in contact with union officials and a non-profit that represents police officers charged with on-duty crimes, who were concerned about possible criminal charges against Van Dyke.