A Chicago judge has acquitted three police officers accused of covering up the 2014 murder of 17 year old Laquan McDonald by a fellow officer Jason Van Dyke. Van Dyke was convicted in October of the second-degree murder of Laquan McDonald, which was captured on an infamous police dashboard camera video. McDonald was shot 16 times, including numerous times as he lay wounded in the street. The three police officers — David March, Joseph Walsh and Thomas Gaffney — contradicted what the video showed and prosecutors alleged it was part of a cover-up. None of them fired any shots that night. Several other officers had witnessed the shooting and given questionable accounts, but a grand jury declined to indict any others.
The acquittal came despite discrepancies between the three officers’ police reports and dash cam video showing that McDonald posed no threat and walked away from officers before he was shot 16 times by Officer Jason Van Dyke. Associate Judge Domenica Stephenson rejected the prosecutors’ arguments that the officers had shooed away witnesses and then created a narrative to justify the 2014 shooting, which prompted citywide protests, the firing of the police chief and a wide-ranging federal investigation into the police force. Prosecutors repeatedly cited the footage as they built a case against the officers on charges of conspiracy, official misconduct and obstruction of justice.
Judge Stephenson said that even though the officers’ accounts of the shooting differed from the video, that it did not amount to proof that they were lying. “Two people with two different vantage points can witness the same event,” she said, and still describe it differently. The judge said that key witnesses for the prosecution had offered conflicting testimony, and said there was nothing presented at trial that showed that the officers had failed to preserve evidence, as prosecutors allege. Challenging the point that officers had shooed away a witness as part of a cover-up, the judge said it was not obvious that the police had known the witness had seen the shooting.
The witness in question, Alma Benitez, had stopped for a bite to eat at a nearby Burger King, on her way home from her night shift at a sandwich shop. Benitez was interviewed by television news crews at the scene and featured in several news reports the next day saying McDonald was clearly not a threat to the officer. She told new crews that Van Dyke had no reason to open fire. “It was super-exaggerated, you didn’t need that many cops to begin with. They didn’t need to shoot him. They didn’t. They basically had him face to face. There was no purpose why they had to shoot him.”
In a federal lawsuit filed in September 2016, Benitez alleges she had tried to take photos and video of the scene with her cellphone but wasn’t sure the recordings worked. Once police “became aware” she was trying to record the incident, they demanded she surrender her phone and accompany officers to the detective headquarters, where she was detained and questioned for six hours. Benitez claims she was allowed to leave the station around 4am, only after she demanded to see a lawyer and that she was “threatened and harassed” on multiple occasions after she was featured in news reports. The suit accuses several officers and detectives of then writing false reports misstating what Benitez and other witnesses at the scene had told them.
Weeks before the city agreed to pay $5 million to McDonald’s estate, a letter written by lawyers representing McDonald’s family alleged that at least two other witnesses to the shooting were treated in similar fashion. The letter alleged that all three were questioned for hours at the Area Central police headquarters and pressured into changing their accounts to match the official police version. The letter also reported that Benitez was so appalled by what she witnessed that she actually screamed out ‘stop shooting!’ as Officer Van Dyke continued to discharge his weapon while Laquan was laid in the street.”