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Not guilty verdicts represent difficulty in holding officers accountable

Ex-Chicago Police Officer Joseph Walsh, center, listens to the judge's ruling, at the Leighton Criminal Court Building, Thursday, Jan. 17, 2019. A Cook County judge acquitted Walsh and two Chicago police officers of trying to cover up the 2014 shooting of black teenager Laquan McDonald. | Zbigniew Bzdak/Chicago Tribune/Pool photo

Ex-Chicago Police Officer Joseph Walsh, center, listens to the judge's ruling, at the Leighton Criminal Court Building, Thursday, Jan. 17, 2019. A Cook County judge acquitted Walsh and two Chicago police officers of trying to cover up the 2014 shooting of black teenager Laquan McDonald. | Zbigniew Bzdak/Chicago Tribune/Pool photo

The stunning “not guilty” verdicts on all counts in the conspiracy trial of three Chicago police officers accused of covering up for Jason Van Dyke shows how difficult it is to hold police officers accountable.

Three months ago, a jury convicted Van Dyke, a white police officer, of second-degree murder and 16 counts of aggravated battery primarily on the strength of a dashcam video that showed the officer shooting 17-year-old Laquan McDonald 16 times.

On Friday, Van Dyke will be sentenced in an unprecedented case that polarized the city, ended political careers and forced reforms on a police department that has long been accused of abusing black and brown citizens.

On the day a jury delivered its verdict in the Van Dyke case, tearful activists claimed the troubled teen had finally gotten justice.

And they vowed that other police officers who had a hand in covering up for Van Dyke would be brought to justice.

But on Thursday, after a rare indictment that put the three Chicago police officers on trial for conspiracy, obstruction of justice and official misconduct, those officers walked away without one charge sticking.

“This court finds the state has failed to meet its burden of proof … the court finds the defendants not guilty of every count of conspiracy and official misconduct and obstruction of justice,” Associate Judge Domenica Stephenson said after picking apart the prosecution’s case.

Detective David March, Officer Thomas Gaffney and ex-Officer Joseph Walsh, Van Dyke’s partner on the night of the fatal 2014 shooting, walked out of court as activists fumed.

While it is unseemly that these police officers didn’t look out for a fellow officer, the state failed to find one witness who could break the code of silence that surrounded this case.

It took the raw video of Van Dyke shooting McDonald as he appeared to be walking away from the officers to convince a jury that Van Dyke used unreasonable force against the teen, who was armed with a small knife.

But that video failed to persuade Stephenson who saw a different side — a side more akin to the police narrative that the black teenager was an “armed assailant” who refused to drop the knife and was a threat to police officers.

The tone of Stephenson’s findings, read aloud in open court, suggested she saw McDonald not as a victim of a miscarriage of justice, but as a dangerous criminal.

Her view proved to be a huge mountain for prosecutors to climb.

They were unsuccessful in trying to show that police officers lied on written reports when they claimed McDonald threatened Van Dyke and three other officers.

Although one witness gave detailed testimony about how incident reports are supposed to be filled out, prosecutors failed miserably at connecting the reports to an intentional conspiracy.

And Stephenson dismissed testimony from the state’s star witness, police officer Dora Fontaine, as “not credible.”

“She admitted that she told FBI agents…under oath that she saw the offender moving closer to the officer waving the knife …She also admitted that she told the inspector general that she saw McDonald making movements” toward police, Stephenson said.

Defense attorneys were able to destroy Fontaine’s testimony to the point that it was painful to watch her on the stand.

Activists that have agitated for reforms in the wake of the McDonald shooting have vowed to gather at 26th and California to protest the Cook County judge’s verdict.

I can understand both their anger and frustration.

But Stephenson’s ruling reflects the divide that exists when it comes to policing in this city.

While Van Dyke’s conviction represented a victory for a community most impacted by officers who use unreasonable force against citizens, Stephenson’s ruling is a victory for the police officers who toe the line and follow the rules –– sometimes at the risk of their own lives.

Can there ever be justice for Laquan McDonald?

This ruling says the justice many of us are looking for is still a long way off.

But while prosecutors lost this critical case, the fact that the state brought these police officers to trial in the first place was a major step toward obtaining that justice.