Three fired cops committed no crimes when they helped cover up former Chicago Police Department Officer Jason Van Dyke’s murder of teenager Laquan McDonald in 2014, a judge ruled Thursday.
“The state has failed to meet its burden,” Cook County Circuit Court Judge Domenica Stephenson said over and over again as she read from her lengthy and detailed ruling rejecting each of the several separate components of conspiracy that prosecutors had tried to prove.
“The crux of this case rises and falls on whether the info that the officers…put in their reports…was false, and if so, was it done to prevent Van Dyke from further investigation or prosecution. For the reasons stated above, this court finds the state has failed to meet its burden on all charges.”
Van Dyke himself was found guilty of murder and related charges in October – four years nearly to the day after he emptied his clip into the teenager. His sentencing hearing is scheduled for Friday.
Local leaders from the black community immediately expressed dismay at the ruling and pledged to fill the streets in protest.
“A judge who prefers police officers making a decision to protect those she prefers to protect does an injustice to our community,” Dr. Leon Finney, a local pastor who has worked for police reform since the 1970s, said at a press podium in the courthouse lobby afterward. “A good thing about our country is this. We have the freedom to peacefully assemble and protest our government. And I would say it is time for us to peacefully assemble to protest this tragedy.”
Part of the outrage stemmed from the sharp contrasts between how Stephenson read the relevant events and the conclusions Van Dyke’s jurors reached about the same material facts. Much of Stephenson’s decision stems from her different interpretation of the central matter of whether or not McDonald had moved toward officers and prompted them to kill him. Van Dyke’s trial team earlier presented an animated recreation of the events that they claimed provides a more accurate picture than the video captured from one police car could show. Though that animation was not at issue in this trial, Stephenson seemed to operate from the same reading of events at the scene that Van Dyke’s defense team had sought to portray.
Stephenson’s ruling Thursday repeatedly emphasized her belief that actual dash-cam video shouldn’t be relied upon because the officers had a different viewing angle on the events it shows. She also concluded that one officer’s use of the word “lunge” in one report didn’t constitute an intentional misrepresentation, in part because the word didn’t appear in other reports the same officer helped craft.
For William Calloway, a similarly prominent but much younger local black activist leader, the ruling was both an emotional blow and an opportunity to straighten the record for people who he said misunderstand his community’s anger.
“Just because we hold police accountable don’t mean we anti-police. We’re not anti-law enforcement, we just don’t like unconstitutional, racist police,” Calloway said. “I need the nation to understand that: We are not against police. We are against unconstitutional police like Jason Van Dyke and these three officers that were just acquitted.”
Stephenson’s ruling at one point invoked the same legal standards that make it hard to convict officers of murder to explain why she concluded these other officers cannot be convicted of conspiracy.
“We cannot view the actions of the officers with the benefit of hindsight as to what they believed. It is undisputed and undeniable that McDonald was an armed offender,” Stephenson said.
Defense attorneys and a local police union official praised Stephenson’s “courage and integrity” in the face of what they said was slanderous and misleading media coverage of the legal issues in play here.
“Whatever you think of Jason Van Dyke,” attorney James McKay said, “these three men were innocent from day one.”
Van Dyke’s murder conviction gave the McDonald family and the broader black community of Chicago a rare, direct form of justice. But the separate, parallel cover-up case is far more significant to the future civic fabric of the city.
The three men made three quite different arguments for their innocence this fall.
Former Officer Joseph Walsh’s lawyers argued he’s just not involved enough in any of this to constitute a co-conspirator in a cover-up. But Walsh’s written report falsely alleging that McDonald had assaulted officers “seconds before the shooting,” per the Chicago Tribune, would have been a crucial document for facilitating that cover-up, prosecutors argued.
Former Officer Thomas Gaffney’s attorneys similarly argued that the police report he authored is being misconstrued by prosecutors. His own report was only about McDonald’s earlier slashing of one of the tires of Gaffney’s squad car, and did not repeat the false claims others proffered about the moments surrounding his actual death.
Former Detective David March’s lawyers are the only ones to center their argument for acquittal around a hidebound insistence that McDonald deserved what he got. “McDonald was committing crimes that night. They don’t want to talk about that,” defense lawyer McKay said at closing.
McKay also pointed out that it was March who filed the dash-cam video that Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s office and other senior city leaders concealed for years afterward. As that now-notorious video shows, McDonald never made threatening movements toward Van Dyke, who opened fire less than 30 seconds after arriving to a scene where numerous other officers already had the troubled teenager surrounded.
Put together, the three defense arguments amounted to a Nino Brown-style argument: It’s the system, not the individuals, who are guilty here. Men and women far above these officers’ pay grades had the authority to wield both the video and the misleading reports filed by officers at the scene in whatever fashion they chose, the defense arguments suggest, and if anyone consciously tried to hide Van Dyke’s murderous decisions it was those senior officials. All their clients did was write down what they saw — including behavior from McDonald they deemed threatening.
Prosecutors don’t necessarily disagree that higher-ups should face similar accountability, the Tribune’s courthouse team noted back when the closing arguments were lodged in December. They made it a point to get emails suggesting higher-ups sought to conceal the case from scrutiny into the court record in this case.
The deceit March, Walsh, and Gaffney were accused of helping to contrive is all too common, according to researchers who study police malfeasance. Though any officer can at any time make a bad decision or take a malicious action to harm the people in their care, it takes a village of them to hide that cop’s choices from broader scrutiny. The oft-invoked “blue wall of silence” is, many officers report, simply a job requirement. If you don’t help lie to cover for the bad apples, the thinking goes, maybe somebody drives a little slower when they hear you’re in trouble nearby and need help.
The deep-rooted culture of silence in policing cannot be plucked out and shattered by any one case, of course. Part of its insidious power over individual officers derives, too, from the near-universal paranoia among cops that their bosses will treat them as sacrificial lambs even in cases where their use of force or their conversational demeanor with a citizen should have been above reproach. If they’ll screw us for doing our jobs right, the thinking goes, then we have to rally around each other always – even when somebody’s done the job wrong.
Though it remains rare for killer cops to face trial – fewer than 100 officers have been charged with homicide out of the tens of thousands of on-duty killings nationwide since the beginning of 2005, and Van Dyke was just the 34th police officer convicted in that time period – it’s rarer still for lying colleagues to face criminal penalties for maintaining that “blue wall.”
Now, that blue wall has been vindicated in court. The decision to bring charges at all may still shake some stones in that wall — assistant prosecutor Ron Safer called the officers who testified against the trio “heroes” on Thursday, and predicted others like them will in time “crack through the code of silence” — but without a win to go with it, the episode seems more likely to reinforce the psychology underlying the code of silence than to undermine it.
The prosecution’s central witness — deemed to not be credible by Stephenson, a finding that effectively doomed the case — has “been called a rat, called a traitor [and] put on desk duty because she can’t be on the street, because of the danger of not having backup,” special prosecutor Patricia Brown Holmes said. “That breaks my heart.”
Though Stephenson presides only over one county in Illinois, her decisions will ring out far afield from her courtroom. What’s crucial for Chicago is crucial for the country – not just because it is the fourth-largest metropolis in the United States, but because the city’s crime rates are frequently wielded as a rhetorical cudgel by national politicians.
As national media attention turned to the patterns of both physical and psychological violence inflicted on black Americans by their police departments over the past few years, stories of abusive policing have exposed lasting divisions in civilian thinking as well as among criminal justice professionals and elected officials.
Rather than embracing the root cause that’s brought protesters into the streets again and again across the country – or even interacting with it in good faith – many Americans have instead adopted a tribal mindset. To these people, you’re either with the cops or against them, either flying a “Blue Lives Matter” flag from your porch and social media profile pages or proclaiming a hidebound cop-hating worldview by expressing support for black critics of law enforcement.
The connections between this divisive tribalism toward police violence and the rising tide of white racial resentment that’s reshaped U.S. politics over the past decade are so straightforward they don’t require explanation. And the divides are likely so deep-set already that even a case like this one can change hardly any minds. If you’re inclined to think a kid holding a knife deserves to get shot if he doesn’t drop it when told, then you’re not going to care if the cop who kills him lies about him “lunging.” He is, to you, no more than a pest to be squashed, and the justification or lack thereof doesn’t matter.
But in some ways the more crucial audience for this case is police officers themselves. Stephenson’s ruling on Thursday sends them a clear message: Solidarity on the job requires silence about wrongdoing.
This piece has been updated to include comment from the attorneys involved and from local black activists at a press conference held after the verdict was delivered.