Chicago, IL – Three Chicago police officers were acquitted of charges they covered up for former Officer Jason Van Dyke on Thursday afternoon.
Chicago Police Officers Joseph Walsh and Thomas Gaffney and former Detective David March were all charged with obstruction of justice, official misconduct, and conspiracy related to the death of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald.
All three were acquitted on Jan. 17.
According to court documents, the three officers provided "virtually identical false information" regarding the incident.
But Associate Judge Domenica Stephenson on Jan. 17 dismissed prosecutors’ assertions that the officers had conspired and obstructed justice, The New York Times reported.
In a lengthy ruling that Stephenson read in court, the judge said that different video angles showed different perspectives on what occurred on the night McDonald was shot.
Stephenson said prosecutors’ evidence was weak, speculative, and totally lacking any proof of crime, according to the Chicago Tribune.
“The state did not prove beyond a reasonable doubt that there was an agreement between any of these defendants or others, or any act in furtherance of their agreement,” she said. “This court finds that the state has failed to meet its burden on all charges.”
The judge called key witnesses unreliable and said they were inconsistent in their testimony.
She said the infamous dashcam video upon which prosecutors hinged their case was a completely different perspective than what officers at the scene had seen, the Chicago Tribune reported.
Van Dyke’s sentencing hearing was underway at the same time the officers’ verdict was being read, and he is expected to be sentenced on Friday.
The former police officer was convicted of 16 counts of aggravated battery and second-degree murder on Oct. 5, 2018 in the death of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald.
The incident occurred at about 9:45 p.m. on Oct. 20, 2014 when Chicago police responded to a report of a teenager breaking into vehicles in the 4000-block of South Karlov Avenue, Fraternal Order of Police Spokesman Pat Camden told WLS at the time.
The teen, later identified as McDonald, slashed the front passenger tire of a patrol SUV, damaged the vehicle’s windshield, and took off on foot, police said.
Officers intercepted the armed suspect in the 4100-block of South Pulaski Road and ordered him to drop the knife, but he refused.
According to the Chicago Tribune, police said McDonald was under the influence of PCP at the time of the incident.
During the trial, Officer Van Dyke’s attorney, Dan Herbert, said that the incident was "a tragedy that could have been prevented with one simple step," the Chicago Tribune reported.
Herbert then dropped the knife McDonald had been carrying that night onto the courtroom floor.
"At any point throughout that 20-something minute rampage, had Laquan McDonald dropped the knife, he'd be here today," Herbert declared.
During the trial, Chicago Police Officer Joseph McElligott testified that he had followed McDonald on foot for several blocks prior to the fatal shooting, and said he did not feel that his life was ever in danger, the Chicago Tribune reported.
“We were trying to buy time to have a Taser,” Officer McElligott said. “We were just trying to be patient.”
Dashcam footage showed McDonald as he jogged down the middle of the roadway towards a police cruiser.
He then walked around the first patrol car and veered into the traffic lane, as officers moved towards his left side, the video showed.
During the trial, Officer Van Dyke’s partner, Officer Walsh, reenacted how McDonald swung the three-inch blade behind his back and up to shoulder-height just before he was shot, the Chicago Tribune reported.
The dashcam video also did not show how events unfolded from Officer Van Dyke’s perspective, and should not be the only piece of evidence utilized to understand what occurred, his attorney noted.
But Officer Walsh was in close proximity to Officer Van Dyke during the incident, and testified that McDonald posed a risk to their safety and that they had a reason to be afraid, the Chicago Tribune reported.
"At 9:57:36, McDonald has crossed over the white lane divider away from the officers, and Officer Van Dyke has taken at least one step towards McDonald with his weapon drawn," Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez said in November of 2015, after Officer Van Dyke was charged with first-degree murder, according to WLS.
"[Officer Van Dyke] then opened fire on Laquan, whose arm jerks, his body spins around and he falls to the ground,” Alvarez said. “While Laquan is falling to the ground the defendant takes at least one more step towards him.”
At that point, the patrol car where the dashcam was mounted moved to the right, cutting Officer Van Dyke out of the frame.
“Two seconds later, Laquan McDonald is lying on the street on his right side, and the video captures what appears to be two puffs of smoke coming from the ground near his body,” Alvarez said, according to WLS. “These puffs of smoke were later identified as clouds of debris caused by the fired bullets.”
“At 9:57:51, McDonald is still lying on the street and the last visible shot is fired,” she said.
According to prosecutors, Officer Van Dyke was beginning to load another magazine into his duty weapon - as he was trained to do - when his partner told him to cease fire.
The second officer then walked toward McDonald, and kicked his knife out of reach.
An autopsy revealed that McDonald was shot in the back of his arms, his right leg, and multiple times in the chest, WLS reported.
He was shot 16 times, according to the Chicago Tribune.
“Of the eight officers on the scene, it was only the defendant who fired his weapon,” Alvarez said. “[Officer Van Dyke acted] without legal justification and with the intent to kill or do great bodily harm” when he fired the fatal rounds.
Herbert argued that his client was forced to make a “split-second” decision in a dangerous, fluid situation.
"The judgement made by individuals that view this tape from the comfort of their living room on their sofa, it's not the same standard as the perspective from my client,” Herbert told WLS. “People viewing this video tape will have the brilliance and benefits of hindsight, 20/20 vision."
“However, the standard in this case is: what was my client experiencing at the time at which he made this split-second decision to fire, and that is the standard that is going to be utilized,” Herbert explained. “And thankfully that will be the standard that will be utilized in court, and we fully anticipate that we will be successful in this case."
Prosecutors argued that Officer Van Dyke should have used less-lethal means to stop the armed teen, and said he could have waited for another officer to arrive with a Taser or used his vehicle to gently tap him, the Chicago Tribune reported.
In April of 2015, the Chicago City Council awarded a $5 million settlement to McDonald’s family, the Associated Press reported.
McDonald was on probation and was a ward of the state at the time of his death, according to WLS.