Cop cover-up trial Day 5: Closing arguments underway as trial nears an end
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6:55 p.m. Judge anticipates ruling on Dec. 19
Following hours of closing arguments, Cook County Judge Domenica Stephenson said she expects to hand down a ruling Dec. 19.
David March, Joseph Walsh and Thomas Gaffney are charged with conspiracy, obstructing justice and official misconduct.
6:37 p.m. ‘There is no innocent explanation’
A special prosecutor repeatedly told the judge “there is no innocent explanation” for police reports filled with allegedly false information about the death of Laquan McDonald as he offered the final argument in an unprecedented conspiracy trial of three current or former Chicago police officers.
Assistant Special Prosecutor Ron Safer began to walk through the reports filed by Thomas Gaffney and Joseph Walsh as he gave the final closing argument in the trial of the two men and David March. As he did so, he accused the defense of “throwing things against the wall,” and he seemed to draw increasingly animated reactions from the defendants.
“You have been given no innocent explanation,” Safer said, as he pointed to identical wording in the reports. “The proof is beyond any reasonable doubt that this was false. That this was an attempt to obstruct justice.”
Safer also played video of the moments immediately before McDonald was shot, including the moment when McDonald flicked out his knife. At that moment, Safer said, McDonald was “pointing it away” from officers.
In the courtroom, March dropped his head and shook it.
Safer also argued, while playing the video, that McDonald did not begin to walk parallel to lane lines in the street moments before he was shot. That prompted some commotion from the defendants’ side of the courtroom as the video played.
“They are trying to say that what you see with your own eyes isn’t what happened,” Safer said. “He’s walking away.”
5:53 p.m. ‘An imperfect answer to an imperfect question’
The last defense attorney to speak during closing arguments in the conspiracy trial revolving around the Laquan McDonald shooting tried to explain what he called a “disagreement” about how his client should have filled out a report after the incident.
Will Fahy represents Thomas Gaffney, who participated in a separate encounter with McDonald the night McDonald was killed. Before McDonald crossed paths with Jason Van Dyke, he was followed by Gaffney and Officer Joseph McElligott. Gaffney followed McDonald in his police vehicle while McElligott followed on foot. During that pursuit, McDonald swung his knife at the tire and windshield of Gaffney’s vehicle.
Later, Van Dyke fatally shot McDonald when McDonald crossed paths with Van Dyke and Joseph Walsh.
Prosecutors have said the reports filled out afterward should have included information from the perspectives of individual officers. And, they have said the two confrontations with McDonald should have been reported separately. Instead, the reports said three officers were assaulted — a total from the two events. Gaffney filled out one of the reports.
“Why did he do that?” Fahy asked. “Well, judge, the reason why he did that is because the police department was treating it as one incident.”
Assistant Special Prosecutor Ron Safer objected to that — insisting the comment was not supported by the evidence. Cook County Jude Domenica Stephenson said she would only consider the evidence presented at trial.
But Fahy went on to call the information on the form “an imperfect answer to an imperfect question on a form that is far less than perfect.”
5:26 p.m. ‘We are dealing with people’s perceptions of events’
The defense attorney for the officer who served as Jason Van Dyke’s partner the night Laquan McDonald was killed focused on the “human element” as he began his closing argument Thursday evening in a conspiracy trial nearing its end.
Tom Breen, the lawyer for Joseph Walsh, said “maybe Van Dyke shot too quickly” on Oct. 20, 2014. “Maybe he shot too often,” Breen added. Regardless, Breen said, “there are thoughts going on in the head of both Van Dyke and Walsh” when Van Dyke fatally shot McDonald. And Breen said those thoughts continued to swirl in Walsh’s mind as he filled out reports about the shooting.
“We are dealing with people’s perceptions of events,” Breen said.
Breen’s closing argument is a stark contrast to the angry argument of James McKay, defense attorney for David March. Breen said the two reports at the center of the case against Walsh — a technical response report and an officer battery report — were “inartfully filled out.” And he acknowledged there was an “error I believe we must admit to — maybe we were not paying attention at the academy.”
He said that, even though McDonald had two separate confrontations with police officers — with different officers each time — he said the officers “combined two events.” And they concluded that three officers had been assaulted.
“It certainly was not filled out to mislead anybody,” Breen said.
Finally, Breen spoke to the judge about the public release of the notorious McDonald shooting video.
“When this video was published, because we’re not used to seeing the violent matter played out on video, it must have shocked everyone to see it,” Breen said. “It did me. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a human being killed. But as shocking as that might be, it does not mean that a crime was committed by Joseph Walsh.”
4:27 p.m. ‘They can’t have it both ways’
The defense attorney for David March tried to pick apart the prosecution’s case against his client as closing arguments continued Thursday.
Prosecutors have insisted that matching police reports produced by March, Joseph Walsh and Thomas Gaffney are proof of a conspiracy — that there must have been an agreement to cover for Jason Van Dyke after the fatal shooting of Laquan McDonald on Oct. 20, 2014.
But as he continued his closing argument Thursday, defense attorney James McKay pointed to reports from March that don’t match others. For example, he pointed to a report in which March listed four victims — not three, as others listed — following the police encounter with McDonald at 41st and Pulaski. And, even though Officer Dora Fontaine has said March told her what to put in a report, McKay pointed to a report from March didn’t match Fontaine’s.
A March report failed to note that an officer had been injured by McDonald, McKay said.
“He never writes Van Dyke was injured by offender,” McKay said.
Additionally, McKay said March never claimed in a report that McDonald “lunged” at officers, even though he’s been accused of using that word when talking to the Cook County Medical Examiner’s office.
Finally, McKay used dashcam video to attack the credibility of Jose Torres, an eyewitness to McDonald’s shooting. Torres has said he was in a vehicle two car lengths away when McDonald was shot. However, according to video from a police vehicle that arrived at the scene after the shooting, the closest vehicles were much farther away. “How ironic it is,” McKay said.
“His story flies in the face of the video,” McKay said. “Yet they charged these three men, claiming their reports fly in the face of the video. They can’t have it both ways.”
3:53 p.m. ‘Thank God we’re in a courtroom’
David March’s defense attorney began his closing argument by pointing indignantly to the crimes committed by Laquan McDonald shortly before his death.
“I can’t think of one law Laquan McDonald followed,” James McKay declared. “And they don’t address that, judge. They don’t talk about it, judge. They don’t talk about Laquan McDonald’s crimes.”
McKay blamed politics for the trial of March, Joseph Walsh and Thomas Gaffney, who are accused of a conspiracy to cover up McDonald’s fatal shooting. And he said, repeatedly, “thank God we’re in a courtroom.”
“Finally,” McKay said. “A courtroom where evidence matters. Not outside noise. Not misinformation. Evidence matters here. Not labels, promoted by people that weren’t there. We keep hearing labels like ‘false reports,’ ‘false reports,’ ‘false reports.’ They’re hoping that the more times they say that you’ll believe it.”
McKay then asked the judge to take a minute to consider all the credible evidence prosecutors used in their case against March.
Without missing a beat, McKay immediately said, “Ok, we’re done.”
Then, turning to key prosecution witness Dora Fontaine, McKay took on the prosecution’s claim that Fontaine had no reason to lie on the witness stand. McKay said Fontaine actually has “90,000 reasons to lie — along with some benefits.”
3:40 p.m. ‘It was all false. But there’s strength in numbers’
As closing arguments continued Thursday, Special Prosecutor Patricia Brown Holmes began to lay out her case against each of the three current or former police officers on trial for an alleged conspiracy to cover up the shooting of Laquan McDonald.
David March, Joseph Walsh and Thomas Gaffney are on trial for conspiracy, obstructing justice and official misconduct.
Holmes told Cook County Judge Domenica Stephenson that Walsh and Gaffney filed officer battery reports filled with false information following McDonald’s Oct. 20, 2014 shooting death. But not only was neither officer battered, Holmes said, the two officers did not cross paths with McDonald at the same time.
Gaffney encountered McDonald first, with partner Joseph McElligott, following a 911 call that summoned police to the scene. McElligott was following McDonald on foot while Gaffney followed in their police vehicle. Eventually, McDonald swung his knife at the police vehicle, popping its tire and scratching its windshield.
Holmes noted that the officer battery reports were meant to be filled out “from the officer’s perspective.” But Gaffney’s said “three officers battered,” she said.
“There aren’t even three officers on the scene,” Holmes said, pointing out that only Gaffney and McElligott were present when McDonald swung his knife at the police vehicle.
Walsh faced McDonald later. He arrived with Jason Van Dyke near 41st and Pulaski, where Van Dyke shot McDonald 16 times. Holmes said Walsh also wrote “three officers battered” on his report. She said he also used similar words as Gaffney, allegedly so the reports would match.
“It was all false,” Holmes said. “But there’s strength in numbers.”
3:08 p.m. Closing arguments underway
Closing arguments began at 3 p.m. in the trial of three current or former Chicago Police officers accused of conspiring to cover up the Oct. 20, 2014 police shooting death of Laquan McDonald.
Special Prosecutor Patricia Brown Holmes kicked things off by hearkening back to her opening statement, telling Cook County Judge Domenica Stephenson the case against David Mach, Joseph Walsh and Thomas Gaffney “is about public trust.”
“Obey the law,” Holmes said. “That’s what police officers learn through their rules and regulations.”
She added, “don’t do things you arrest people for doing. Lying, cheating, falsifying, violating the law.”
March, Walsh and Gaffney are charged with a conspiracy, obstructing justice and official misconduct. Their lawyers rested their brief cases earlier today without calling any of the men to the stand.
Because the case is a bench trial, it will be up to Stephenson to decide the guilt of the three men. It is not clear whether the judge will hand down her decision today or take time to consider it.
1:47 p.m. The Defense rests
Defense attorneys for the three officers accused of a conspiracy to cover-up the shooting of Laquan McDonald rested their brief case Thursday afternoon without calling any of their clients to the stand.
Instead, lawyers for David March, Joseph Walsh and Thomas Gaffney offered to Cook County Judge Domenica Stephenson several pieces of evidence, through stipulation. They included a series of reports about McDonald’s Oct. 20, 2014 shooting, as well as video. March’s attorney also called retired Chicago Police Detective Nancy Piekarski-Block to the witness stand.
Prosecutors chose not to put on a rebuttal case. Closing arguments are expected at 2:50 p.m.
12:34 p.m. Defense begins to call witnesses
An attorney for one of the three officers on trial for an alleged conspiracy to cover-up the Laquan McDonald shooting kicked off the defense Thursday by calling a retired Chicago police detective to the stand.
James McKay, defense attorney for David March, called retired Det. Nancy Piekarski-Block. Under questioning by McKay, she testified that she entered March’s star number into a computer, which then added March’s name to the original incident report prepared by Officer Dora Fontaine after the fatal Oct. 20, 2014, incident.
March, Joseph Walsh and Thomas Gaffney are accused of crafting a false narrative in police reports about McDonald’s shooting by Jason Van Dyke. When March’s attorney is done calling witnesses, attorneys for Walsh and Gaffney will also have an opportunity.
Before calling Piekarski-Block, McKay read a stipulation about an answer a witness to the McDonald shooting — Jose Torres — gave to the Independent Police Review Authority. According to the stipulation, Torres told an IPRA investigator that, after McDonald was shot, “to be honest with you, it looked like he was trying to get up.”
“Like, cause, he was, you know, he was already hurt,” Torres said. “So, I don’t know what it is to, to, you know, to get shot or to get a bullet in me, but I’m assuming you gotta be in pain, so anybody’s going to move if they’re in pain and, um, it, you know, he was no longer a danger to the shooting, continued shooting if, you know, or no longer a threat, if he was already on the ground.”
Lawyers for a trio of Chicago police officers accused of filing false reports to protect Jason Van Dyke in the department’s investigation of the fatal Laquan McDonald shooting will begin making their case Thursday, as the conspiracy trial enters its fifth day of testimony.
It’s not clear whether Officer Thomas Gaffney or retired officers Joseph Walsh and detective David March will take the stand in the bench trial, which hinges on alleged false statements they included in reports filed the night of the October 2014 shooting and during the months-long investigation that followed.
Prosecutors said that March, who supervised the investigation, inserted false details into the reports of at least one officer who witnessed Van Dyke firing 16 shots at McDonald, with the intention of making it appear that the 17-year-old was making an aggressive move toward Van Dyke and his partner, Walsh.
Gaffney, Walsh and other officers at the scene — including Van Dyke — also talked about the shooting and watched video from a dashboard camera at the Area Central headquarters before filing their official reports, which prosecutors also have said contained false information about McDonald being an aggressor.
Over four days of testimony, Special Prosecutor Patricia Brown Holmes’ team built its case with civilian witnesses and dashboard camera footage that does not show McDonald moving “as if to attack” Van Dyke, or McDonald attempting to get up after the first bullets sent him slumping to the pavement.
Walsh testified earlier this year at Van Dyke’s murder trial, emphatically stating that the video was filmed from a different perspective than the one he and Van Dyke had in the seconds before Van Dyke opened fire. Walsh, who had partnered with Van Dyke for only the second time the night of the shooting, re-enacted the incident for jurors, playing the role of McDonald.
“His right shoulder and right arm had come up in front of him . . . as he progressed in our direction,” Walsh said, standing just a few feet from the jurors.
“He turned and looked in our direction, with a stare and a focus beyond us,” Walsh said, turning toward the jury box, “like that.”
March’s lawyer, former prosecutor James McKay, has argued that the veteran detective gathered evidence — including the dashcam video at the heart of the case — and statements from officers before clearing Van Dyke of wrongdoing.
“He believed in his opinion,” McKay told Cook County Judge Domenica Stephenson on Tuesday, arguing a motion to have the judge issue an acquittal without hearing the defense case. “They want to criminalize the opinion of an experienced police detective.”
McKay last week had a long list of witnesses he had subpoenaed, but did not say whether he intended to call March.
Gaffney’s lawyer has argued that the veteran officer — who is the only one of the three defendants still on the force — did nothing wrong. Gaffney and his partner were the first officers to arrive on the scene after McDonald was reported allegedly breaking into trucks on a Southwest Side lot, and the two officers trailed the unresponsive McDonald for blocks.
Neither Gaffney nor his partner, Joseph McElligott, fired a shot at McDonald, even after McDonald stabbed the tire and windshield of Gaffney’s police cruiser. The teen sprinted away from Gaffney and McElligott as other officers arrived, and neither officer was close enough to see Van Dyke shoot McDonald.
Prosecutors have argued that the fact that the reports filed by Gaffney that night mirrored false information in other officers’ reports was evidence of a coordinated, if ultimately unsuccessful, attempt to whitewash the McDonald shooting investigation.
The three officers are charged with counts of obstruction of justice, official misconduct and conspiracy — the first time Chicago officers have faced criminal charges to enforce what CPD critics, and, more recently, Mayor Rahm Emanuel, have called a “code of silence” within the department.
The trial is set to resume at 11:30 a.m. Follow the Chicago Sun-Times live blog or watch streaming video from the courtroom here.