Three Chicago police officers who allegedly covered up details the deadly shooting of Laquan McDonald were found not guilty, a Cook County judge announced on Thursday.
“The state did not prove beyond a reasonable doubt,” Cook County Judge Domenica Stephenson said in court on Thursday, adding that there is no evidence that the officers conspired to protect their fellow officer.
Retired Chicago police officers David March and Joseph Walsh, along with Thomas Gaffney, who is currently suspended without pay, were each charged with conspiracy, obstruction of justice, and official misconduct for allegedly exaggerating the threat the 17-year-old posed to officers.
“There is no evidence in any way shape or form that the officers intentionally put errors in the report,” Stephenson said in court on Thursday.
After the shooting, prosecutors said, the three officers allegedly created “false stories, and submitted false police reports” after Laquan McDonald was shot and killed on Oct. 20, 2014 by then-Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke.
“There is no video from the vantage point of Walsh, Gaffney, or March,” the judge added, noting that the video shows Laquan McDonald continuing to move while being shot. “You can’t use hindsight to determine whether Walsh and Van Dyke reasonably believed a threat was imminent.”
Throughout the hour-long hearing, Stephenson explained why each piece of evidence against the three Chicago cops did not point to a cover-up. “It is not as simple as looking at the reports and comparing them to what was on the video,” she said.
Following the verdict, Laquan McDonald's great uncle Marvin Hunter told reporters the acquittal proved the “entire Cook County criminal justice system is corrupt" and the judge did “everything in her mind to make sure we will accept this mis-justice.”
“This is not justice,” he said. “To say that these men are not guilty is to say Jason Van Dyke is not guilty. And [Stephenson's] done that.”
The not-guilty verdict comes nearly four years after graphic dashcam footage of the 40-year-old cop shooting McDonald 16 times in less than 14 seconds, sparking widespread protests across the country and political turmoil in the nation’s third-largest city.
In October, Van Dyke was found guilty of second-degree murder and 16 counts of aggravated battery with a firearm. The officer, however, was found not guilty on an official misconduct charge.
Van Dyke is set to be sentenced on Friday and faces up to 96 years in prison.
Unlike Van Dyke, Gaffney, Walsh, and March all waived their right to a jury trial and chose to have Stephenson decide their fate after their 2017 charge.
In the bench trial on Thursday, the attorneys for all three maintained the officers were just doing their job and filled the report based off what was told to them at the scene.
Prosecutors, on the other hand, said the statements did not match up with the dash-cam recording and believe Gaffney, Walsh, and March tried to hide aspects of the incident “by providing or signing” inaccurate reports that Van Dyke acted out of self-defense after McDonald allegedly lunged at the cop with a knife and assaulted other officers.
“If we didn’t have people willing to cover up for bad officers, we wouldn’t have bad officers," Christy Lopez, a former deputy chief in the Special Litigation Section of the Civil Rights Division at the U.S. Department of Justice, said before the trial, adding that Thursday’s outcome may be “more important” than Van Dyke’s October trial.
She added: “I hope it sends a message to officers everywhere that it's not worth their careers, and it’s not worth their integrity, to cover up for someone who has violated someone else's rights.”
Despite officials’ claim that the reports were “misleading,” Judge Stephenson said in court on Thursday that the video doesn’t prove the statements were false.