First, the cop who killed Laquan McDonald was found guilty of murder. Now attention turns to the alleged cover-up.
Three Chicago police officers are on trial on charges of conspiring to protect their colleague, Jason Van Dyke, the officer who fatally shot 17-year-old Laquan McDonald in 2014. [Chip Mitchell / WAMU] Opening statements were delivered yesterday and the special prosecutor presented its first witnesses. [Jason Meisner, Megan Crepeau, and Stacy St. Clair / Chicago Tribune] The trial began seven weeks after Van Dyke was found guilty in October of second-degree murder, in a verdict that many had longed for but were not sure would ever come. When it came, nearly four years after Laquan’s death, it was the rare outcome that punctured the impunity shielding cops in Chicago, and around the country. [Mitch Smith / New York Times] See also In our Oct. 5 newsletter, we looked at Van Dyke’s trial and how the “blue wall of silence” came up to protect him.
More than a year after Laquan McDonald’s death, a judge ordered the release of the dashboard camera video that showed Van Dyke, a white officer, shooting Laquan, a Black teenager, 16 times, including after he lay motionless on the ground. That video, and the city’s efforts to keep it hidden, prompted outrage over the cover-up and led to a cascade of political consequences that included the ouster of state’s attorney Anita Alvarez, the firing of the police chief, a Department of Justice investigation that concluded the Chicago Police Department was infected with racism and brutality, and, most recently, the announcement from Mayor Rahm Emanuel that he would not seek re-election next year. When Van Dyke finally went on trial last month, the video served as the crucial piece of evidence, contradicting Van Dyke’s claims about the danger he believed he faced from Laquan. [Mitch Smith, Timothy Williams, and Monica Davey / New York Times] See also In our Oct. 11 newsletter, we discussed how the video helped lead to Van Dyke’s conviction, but how police video can also be used to acquit officers.
The video will also play a role in the trial of Officer Thomas Gaffney, former Officer Joseph Walsh, and ex-Detective David March. The three are facing charges that include obstruction of justice, official misconduct, and conspiracy to commit those offenses. [Chip Mitchell / WAMU] Last year, when it seemed near-impossible that Van Dyke would be convicted, some commentators argued that it would be the prosecution of Van Dyke’s fellow officers that would truly strike at the “saturation of corruption” in the police department. [Alan Pyke / ThinkProgress]
Prosecutors allege that officers on the scene and detectives whose role it was to investigate the killing met with Van Dyke in the hours following it to settle on an account of what happened. Gaffney, Walsh, and March were among the officers at the meeting who then went on to file false police reports. At a hearing last month, an assistant special prosecutor said, “The trial will focus on consistently false information that could not have been submitted except for an agreement to write consistently false information.” [Chip Mitchell / WAMU] Among the allegations are that officers also failed to interview witnesses on the scene, including a father and son who saw the shooting from their car and were then ordered to leave the area. They are expected to testify against the officers. [Tess Owens / Vice]
The trial is happening before a judge, Domenica Stephenson, rather than a jury. The Chicago Tribune reported that one of the takeaways of the first day is that “Laquan McDonald appears to be on trial again.” The defense sought to present a narrative similar to that presented during Van Dyke’s trial, focusing on the Laquan’s actions before his death. In his opening statement, a lawyer for one of the officers said: “Race has nothing to do with this case. This case is about law and order … It’s about Laquan McDonald not following any laws that night. There must be some individual responsibility attached to McDonald.” While that defense failed to win the jury’s support during Van Dyke’s trial, there is the possibility that the officers will find a more sympathetic audience in Judge Stephenson, a former prosecutor. The first day prominently featured the police paperwork created after Laquan’s death, which prosecutors allege contain falsehoods meant to cover up Van Dyke’s actions. The prosecution called two witnesses and testimony was scheduled to resume today. [Jason Meisner, Megan Crepeau, and Stacy St. Clair / Chicago Tribune]
Laquan McDonald’s murder and the quest for police accountability requires, as do all prosecutions of police and prison guard violence, reckoning with the question of how much to seek justice from the same system that imperils so many Black and brown lives. In an In These Times piece published during Van Dyke’s trial, Benji Hart explored these questions, asking: “Would locking up a killer cop work to curb state violence, or to reestablish faith in the very systems—prisons, courts, police—that are its source? … How do we dream bigger than convictions … What models for police accountability exist that teach us to shrink the state’s purview, not expand it?” Hart, an organizer with the #NoCopAcademy campaign, pointed to Mayor Emanuel’s move—after a scathing Department of Justice review of the Chicago Police Department—to argue for $95 million in funding for a new training academy. “The administration relied on the murder of Laquan,” Hart writes, “to up spending on the same violent institution that took Laquan’s life.” [Benji Hart / In These Times]