CHICAGO – The trial of three Chicago police officers charged with lying to protect a fellow officer from criminal prosecution after he fatally shot black teenager Laquan McDonald began with prosecutors pointing to reports they contend were falsified and defense attorneys putting much of the blame on the teen himself.
Ex-officer Joseph Walsh, former Detective David March and officer Thomas Gaffney “violated the public trust” when they “began to fashion a story [and] create lies that were designed to help [Jason] Van Dyke avoid the consequences of his actions,” Special Prosecutor Patricia Brown Holmes said during opening statements Tuesday.
The case marks what’s believed to be the first time in Chicago history that members of the police force have faced criminal charges for trying to cover up the actions of a fellow officer in an on-duty shooting.
Defense attorneys, however, dismissed any suggestion that their clients created a cover story to help Van Dyke. The defense also took a tack that proved unsuccessful for Van Dyke’s attorneys in the trial that ended with a conviction on second-degree murder and aggravated battery charges. They pinned the blame for McDonald’s death on the shoulders of the teen who was shot 16 times.
“This is a case about law and order,” March’s attorney, James McKay, told the judge. “It’s about Laquan McDonald not following any laws that night.”
McKay also called McDonald a “crazed individual” with the drug PCP in his system.
William Fahy, Gaffney’s attorney, agreed. He reminded the judge that McDonald had punctured the tire of Gaffney’s squad car and smashed a knife into the windshield of the vehicle. Fahy said “that was an assault.”
“The evidence will show Laquan McDonald looked [Gaffney] in the eye and raised that knife,” he said.
Testimony started later in the day with a witness whose focus was on the crux of the prosecution’s case: The police reports that the men wrote, and the differences between what they put on paper and the dashcam video that the jury in Van Dyke’s trial saw several times.
Joseph Perfetti, a civilian director of the police department’s record services division, read from March’s report on the witness stand.
“Criminal attacked officer,” Perfetti said was written in the former detective’s report of what happened the night of Oct. 20, 2014, when officer Van Dyke confronted McDonald. “Then that officer killed criminal.”
The three men are on trial for felony charges of obstruction of justice, official misconduct and conspiracy. March and Walsh are no longer with the department, while Gaffney has been suspended.
The police union has suggested the officers are victims of politics, but others contend any potential convictions would demonstrate that officers who adhere to a “code of silence” are not above the law.
Holmes alluded to that code when she told the judge about the treatment within the department of officer Dora Fontaine, one of prosecution’s key witnesses. She is expected to testify that March directed her to report that McDonald had advanced at Van Dyke and Walsh and swung his knife at him. Those claims are not backed by the dashcam video.
“She immediately contacted her lawyer. She wanted to set the record straight, but her reward for telling the truth was to be called a rat and to be told that she would not be safe on street duty,” Holmes told the judge.
The bench trial, in which a judge and not a jury will decide the defendants’ guilt or innocence, is expected to last about a week.