Three police officers accused of covering up the shooting death of Laquan McDonald have been found not guilty.
Cook County Judge Domenica Stephenson ruled the prosecution’s case was not strong enough to warrant a conviction. Stephenson decided the case leaned too heavily on discrepancies between the official police reports and a dashcam video of the incident and failed to prove the officers lied, reports NPR.
"It is not as simple as looking at the reports and comparing them to what was on the video," Stephenson declared.
Officer Thomas Gaffney, former officer Joseph Walsh, and former Detective David March waived their rights to a jury trial and left their fates up to Stephenson. They were charged with obstruction of justice, official misconduct and conspiracy.
In the dashcam video, McDonald can be seen walking away as former Chicago Police officer Jason Van Dyke riddled his body with 16 bullets after being on the scene for a mere six seconds. During the investigation, Gaffney and Marsh marked a box on a form indicating McDonald could have caused Van Dyke severe injury or death. The 17-year-old only had a 3-inch knife in his possession.
"The only way the shooting of Laquan McDonald could be justified is if that last box is checked," Special Prosecutor Patricia Brown Holmes said. "Defendants Gaffney and Walsh checked that box knowing it was a lie. … That's official misconduct, that's obstruction of justice, that's conspiracy — right there in black and white."
In another report, March, who was not even present during the shooting, wrote, "McDonald committed aggravated assaults against the three officers, finally forcing Officer Van Dyke, in defense of his life, to shoot and kill McDonald." March went on to determine the dashcam video lined up with Van Dyke’s and other officers’ testimony.
Defense attorney Thomas Breen chalked it all up to error rather than malice.
"There was nothing illegal about the way these forms were filled out," Breen said. "There was no intent to mislead."
Officer Dora Fontaine disputed claims McDonald was a threat and said she was urged to lie about the shooting by colleagues. She refused and claims her coworkers mistreated her, reports NBC News.
"Other officers were calling me a rat, a snitch, a traitor, they wouldn't back me up," she said. "If I was on a call-in and needed assistance, some officers felt strong enough to say that I didn't deserve to be helped."
The acquittal comes one day before Van Dyke is scheduled to be sentenced for killing McDonald. He was found guilty of second-degree murder and aggravated battery in October.
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports the ruling deeply hurt McDonald's family, and they questioned how Van Dyke could be found guilty if the three officers acquitted today are innocent.
In a post-trial press conference, Reverend Marvin Hunter, McDonald's uncle, said, "It is a sad day for America."
"To say that these men are not guilty is to say that Jason Van Dyke is not guilty," he added, arguing the decision tells other police officers "that if you are a police officer you can lie, cheat and steal."
Activist William Calloway said he believes the verdict will only embolden officers, and he saw members of the department laughing with one another and high-fiving outside of the courtroom after the verdict was read.
As NBC News reports, Calloway called on those upset by the verdict to stay at home until February, when Chicago's next local election will take place.
"Don't protest. Don't take to the streets," Calloway said. "It's time that we take to the polls."
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