Cop conspiracy trial ends — but judge will wait two weeks to decide case

A Cook County judge said she will take two weeks to consider a verdict in the unprecedented trial of three Chicago police officers charged with filing false reports meant to scuttle the investigation into the shooting death of Laquan McDonald by Officer Jason Van Dyke.

After five days of testimony spanning two weeks, Judge Domenica Stephenson said Thursday she will announce her verdict Dec. 19 in the trial of Chicago Police Department Officer Thomas Gaffney, former Officer Joseph Walsh and former Detective David March. The case marks the first time CPD officers have faced criminal charges for maintaining the so-called “code of silence,” with each officer facing charges of official misconduct, obstruction of justice and conspiracy.

In closing arguments, Special Prosecutor Patricia Brown Holmes opened with a reference to the dashboard camera video of Van Dyke shooting McDonald 16 times in the middle of a Southwest Side intersection the night of Oct. 20, 2014, images that she said contradicts key statements the three officers included in their reports on the shooting.

“This case is about public trust,” said Holmes, a former federal prosecutor and Cook County judge. “It boils down to what the defendant wrote on paper in black and white versus what’s on video.”

The three defendants all had key roles in the McDonald shooting or the investigation that followed. March was the lead investigator in a CPD probe that eventually cleared Van Dyke of wrongdoing. Walsh was standing next to Van Dyke as Van Dyke opened fire on McDonald, and backed up Van Dyke’s account that McDonald was moving toward them. Gaffney and his partner were the first officers to encounter McDonald, and he was behind the wheel of a police SUV when McDonald stabbed the tire, then the windshield, of the vehicle.

In a case built largely around a handful of lines in hundreds of pages of reports filed by the defendants, prosecutors and the defense have sparred over the Police Department’s guidelines for who files what report, and when, as well as the idiosyncrasies of the computer software officers used to enter their reports. As evidence of a broad conspiracy, prosecutors pointed to identical phrasing in those reports, and that the officers had milled around and talked about what happened with March at Area Central headquarters.

March’s lawyer, former prosecutor James McKay, argued that the errors were minor or debatably true, and he said March conducted a thorough investigation that reached a reasonable conclusion — that Van Dyke was justified in shooting McDonald.

“They want to criminalize a person’s opinion,” McKay said. “We don’t do that in the United States of America.”

In an hour-long monologue, McKay cited numerous crimes committed by McDonald in the minutes before he was shot — from slashing a knife at a civilian that confronted him on a truck lot to stabbing Gaffney’s police cruiser — and pointed to state law that allows police to use deadly force against a fleeing felon. He tore into fellow officer Dora Fontaine, who witnessed the shooting but testified that she never said in her reports that McDonald was making any aggressive movements when Van Dyke shot him.

Similar lines of argument did not work for lawyers for Van Dyke, who was convicted in October of second-degree murder and aggravated assault. Van Dyke was identified in the charging documents as “Officer Individual A,” but at trial, Holmes’ team pointed to high-ranking officers as key unindicted co-conspirators.

March’s supervisors, Sgt. Daniel Gallagher and Lt. Anthony Wojcik, discussed the shooting in email messages, mischaracterizing key elements, with Gallagher suggesting that the department should be “applauding” Van Dyke, not “second-guessing him.” Months after the department closed the investigation, Gallagher and Wojcik corresponded with a CPD officer working with the Fraternal Order of Police, and appeared to provide case files to a legal defense group that was interested in representing Van Dyke. After requesting more CPD files, the group’s president emailed Wojcik and asked, “Tony, any luck making the case go away?”

Walsh’s lawyer, Tom Breen, argued that Walsh merely filed his reports, stating what he saw that night, and went home after witnessing a fellow officer make a life-or-death decision.

“He did the best he could. He filled out reports as he thought that they should be filed,” he said “Those reports were approved by his supervisor, and let the chips fall where they may.”

Assistant Special Prosecutor Ron Safer said that the adrenaline had faded by the time the officers met and filed their reports, and even after they had a chance to watch the dashcam video for themselves.

“This case is not about the decision to shoot,” Safer said. “This case is about what these defendants did in the calm, cool reflective atmosphere of their offices, and how they got their stories together and conspired to obstruct justice.”

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