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Fate of cops on trial for conspiracy in hands of judge

By Bryan Crawford -Contributing Writer- | Last updated: Dec 12, 2018 - 7:09:09 AM

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CHICAGO—After two weeks in court, which included five days of witness testimony and at the conclusion of closing arguments, Judge Domenica Stephenson said she will decide on Dec. 19 what will happen to the three Chicago police officers charged with conspiracy. The trio is accused of trying to cover for fellow officer Jason Van Dyke after the fatal October 2014 shooting of Laquan McDonald, 17.

Current Chicago police officer Thomas Gaffney, and his co-defendants, former officer Joseph Walsh and former detective David March, are charged with obstruction of justice and official misconduct for filing reports littered with what prosecutors argue are false statements that demonstrated collusion on the part of the officers to make Van Dyke’s killing of the teen, appear to have been justified.

In April, the trio of officers opted for a bench trial instead of a jury trial, leaving their fate in the hands of Judge Stephenson, playing the odds that a bench trial will lead to a more favorable outcome for the officers. Off. Van Dyke elected for a jury trial and was convicted of second-degree murder and other counts. In the Van Dyke trial, the disgraced officer’s defense attorneys tried to place blame on Laquan McDonald for his own death. From the very outset of the conspiracy trial against Walsh, March and Gaffney, defense attorneys for the three employed essentially the same strategy, even though Laquan McDonald wasn’t directly involved in what the officers did in the aftermath of the shooting (See Final Call Vol. 38 No. 10).

During the conspiracy trial one of the crucial pieces of information prosecutors presented was at least a dozen emails between Chicago Police Department supervisors Sgt. Daniel Gallagher and Lt. Anthony Wojcik, that seemingly created a justified shooting narrative for Off.Van Dyke. These electronic communications include messages from Lt. Wojcik saying, “we should be applauding Van Dyke, not second-guessing him,” while also suggesting Laquan died from “suicide by cop.”

Prosecutors alleged that information in the emails, later determined to have been false, was used in the reports filed by the three officers, bolstering the prosecution’s argument that a cover-up on behalf of Off.Van Dyke took place.

“There is no innocent explanation. You have been given no innocent explanation,” said special prosecutor Ron Safer to Judge Stephenson during closing arguments Dec. 6. “The proof is beyond any reasonable doubt that this was false. That this was an attempt to obstruct justice … They are trying to say that what you see with your own eyes isn’t what happened.”

“We are dealing with people’s perceptions of events,” said Tom Breen, defense attorney for Joseph Walsh. “When this video was published, because we’re not used to seeing the violent matter played out on video, it must have shocked everyone to see it. It did me. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a human being killed. But as shocking as that might be, it does not mean that a crime was committed by Joseph Walsh.”

Strengthening the special prosecutor’s argument during the trial was testimony made by Thomas Gaffney to the grand jury. Mr. Gaffney said that officers who were on the scene that night, which included himself, his three co-defendants, as well as Jason Van Dyke along with police union reps and attorneys, all gathered together in a common room at the Area Central police department after the shooting to discuss the events leading up to Laquan McDonald being shot and what took place afterwards, all before the three officers filed their official reports.

Will Fahy, attorney for Mr. Gaffney, asserted in court that this kind of procedure by police congregation in the aftermath of a police-involved shooting was nothing more than, “standard operating procedure.”

Also, during the trial, the Chicago Police Board quietly moved to officially fire Jason Van Dyke, nearly two months after his guilty conviction. Mr. Van Dyke had been suspended from the department without pay, and his license to operate as a police officer in Chicago was immediately revoked after he was found guilty. However, he was never formally terminated by CPD.

Police board lawyers filed a request with Judge Vincent Gaughan, who sat on the bench during the Van Dyke trial, to lift an order that sealed certain records, as well as barred Jason Van Dyke or his lawyers from discussing the 2014 shooting in any capacity.

As for Judge Stephenson’s announcement to not render a verdict until nearly two weeks after closing arguments, community activists in Chicago are split on what impact this delay will have on the outcome.

Some are of the impression that this is a clear cut case of collusion and in the wake of the Van Dyke trial, there is no way the judge could find these three men innocent of their actions. However, others feel the delay could benefit the officers because bench trials have historically led to judges rendering favorable decisions for cops accused of wrongdoing, as well as Judge Stephenson being a former colleague of James McKay, who is defending David March, since the two worked together at the Illinois State’s Attorney’s office.

“I think it’s a strong possibility that Van Dyke’s racist co-conspirators are found not guilty,” Eric Russell, a community and police accountability activist, told The Final Call. “This whole situation really speaks to the Blue Code of Silence. The implications of this case are very high nationwide because it will verify that White cops do cover-up criminal behavior on the part of other White cops. That’s why I think this judge is taking so long because this case is going to tell it all.”

Police officers being found guilty of making false statements is certainly not without precedent. Several days after the Thanksgiving holiday this year, Raimundo Atesiano, former chief of the Biscayne Park Police Department, was sentenced to three years in a Florida jail for his role in framing innocent Black men of burglaries in the small South Florida town of roughly 3,000 residents. In October, former Jackson, Georgia police officer Sherry Hall, a White woman, was sentenced to 15 years in prison and 23 years of probation—she turned down a pre-trial plea deal for five years in prison and five years on probation—for lying about being shot by a Black man back in 2016.

Kofi Ademola, another Chicago-based community activist, told The Final Call that the judge seems to either be combing through this case meticulously, or making it look good to shape the public’s perception that this will be a well thought out verdict.

“I’m clearly biased, but to me it’s a very open and shut case. To me, there is no ambiguity, no lack of evidence of their guilt, nor any compelling, refuting evidence that proves their innocence. Plus, I hope the judge takes into consideration that this situation is part of the CPD culture and therefore, this wasn’t an offshoot anomaly, this is common practice for them to lie to protect one another,” he said.

If convicted on official misconduct charges, Gaffney, Walsh and March could each face up to five years in prison, while a conviction on the obstruction of justice charge carries a maximum sentence of three years.