Trial Begins for 3 Chicago Cops Accused of Covering Up McDonald Shooting

(Tribune) The trial kicking off Tuesday over an alleged cover-up by Chicago police in the controversial killing of Laquan McDonald isn’t just rare — it’s unprecedented.

Former Detective David March, ex-Officer Joseph Walsh and Officer Thomas Gaffney are believed to be the first Chicago cops ever to face criminal “code of silence” charges stemming from an on-duty shooting.

Their bench trial — while historic — likely won’t have the drama or grand scale of the recent case against their colleague Officer Jason Van Dyke, who was found guilty last month of second-degree murder and aggravated battery for shooting McDonald 16 times.

But the conspiracy case beginning Tuesday in Associate Judge Domenica Stephenson’s cramped courtroom is expected to open an intriguing window into how Chicago police investigate a shooting by one of their own — a process critics have long derided as a whitewash.

March, Walsh and Gaffney each face charges of conspiracy, obstructing justice and official misconduct. Prosecutors allege they filed false police reports containing nearly identical claims about the details surrounding McDonald’s October 2014 shooting, including strikingly similar statements that exaggerated the threat posed by McDonald before Van Dyke opened fire.

A police dashboard video of McDonald’s shooting shows Van Dyke shooting the black teen within seconds of arriving on Pulaski Road that night. The 17-year-old, holding a knife, appeared to walk away from police as the white officer opened fire — and continued to shoot well after McDonald fell to the pavement.

In pretrial hearings, the defense has blasted the evidence as weak, especially given the case’s high-profile status and potentially far-reaching implications. Even if their police reports were inaccurate — which the officers deny — that would not amount to a crime, their attorneys argue.

Among the witnesses expected to testify for the prosecution are Jose Torres and his son, Xavier, who say they saw the shooting unfold from their car and were shooed away from the scene by officers who never bothered to ask for their version of events.

Also slated to take the stand is Officer Dora Fontaine, who was at the scene of the shooting and testified in Van Dyke’s trial as well.

Fontaine, who is testifying under a grant of immunity from prosecutors, is expected to say that March’s reports quote her saying things she never told him. She is also expected to say that the detective told her to identify Van Dyke in one report as “injured” and that he got her to agree with what he said the now-infamous dashcam video showed.

The officers’ attorneys, meanwhile, have accused Fontaine of being a perjurer, arguing in pretrial hearings that she has given conflicting statements to the city inspector general and to a grand jury investigating the shooting.

Walsh, who was Van Dyke’s partner that night, and March, the lead investigator of the shooting, left the Police Department after the inspector general’s office recommended their firing.

Gaffney, one of the first officers to encounter McDonald, remains on the force but has been suspended without pay since the criminal charges came down in June 2017.

While the trial will focus primarily on the lower-ranking cops at the scene, prosecutors may introduce evidence that other officers — including department bosses — participated in the cover-up, part of their attempt to prove an overall conspiracy.

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