A Chicago police officer and two former officers pleaded not guilty Monday to conspiring to cover up what happened the night a white officer killed a black teenager by shooting him 16 times.
Joseph Walsh, David March and Thomas Gaffney are accused of quickly coordinating their stories to protect themselves and other officers following the 2014 death of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald. The men said little during the brief hearing, which marked their first court appearance since being indicted last month.
The indictment alleges the officers lied when they reported the teen aggressively swung a knife and tried to get up, while still armed, after he was shot by Officer Jason Van Dyke. But police dashcam video shows the teen was walking away from officers with a small knife by his side when he was shot.
The video — which wasn’t publicly released until a year after the shooting — also shows that Laquan was spun to the ground as Van Dyke repeatedly fired. Van Dyke has pleaded not guilty to first-degree murder, and the city agreed to pay Laquan’s family $5 million.
Walsh and March, who as a detective concluded the shooting was justified, have left the Chicago Police Department. Gaffney is still on the force but, per department policy, was suspended because of the felony indictment.
If convicted of the most serious charge, official misconduct, the men could face up to 5 years in prison.
Cook County Judge Diane Cannon allowed the men to stay out of jail Monday by releasing them on their own recognizance, but she ordered that they be finger printed. Cannon, a former prosecutor, was assigned to the case after another judge quickly recused herself without explanation earlier Monday.
In 2015, Cannon acquitted a Chicago police commander who was charged with aggravated battery with a deadly weapon after allegedly shoving a gun down a suspect’s throat. Local activists who attended Monday’s hearing didn’t call on Cannon to recuse herself, saying they were confident in special prosecutor Patricia Brown Holmes’ judgment.
Brown Holmes, who was appointed last year to lead an investigation into Laquan’s shooting, declined through a spokeswoman to comment after the hearing. Walsh, March and Gaffney also didn’t comment after the hearing.
Walsh’s defense attorney, Tom Breen, said he was confident his client would get a fair trial and be found not guilty. Attorneys for Gaffney and March left the courthouse without talking to reporters.
In a statement released with the indictment, Brown Holmes said the officers and others “coordinated their activities to protect each other and other members of the Chicago Police Department.” She said the officers went so far as to ignore contrary evidence and failed to try to interview key witnesses.
The indictment wasn’t a surprise, given a special prosecutor was appointed and the city’s police superintendent announced he was pushing to have seven officers fired for what they wrote in their reports.
Still, such charges are rare against law enforcement officers, and the indictment was especially jarring because it revealed a concerted effort to create a narrative to protect Van Dyke.