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.