Three Chicago police officers have been indicted on charges that they conspired to cover up and lie about what happened when a white police officer shot a black teenager 16 times – an incident that prompted outrage when a video of the killing was finally released.
The indictment handed down Tuesday alleges that one current and two former officers lied about the events of Oct. 20, 2014, when Officer Jason Van Dyke killed Laquan McDonald.
The officers' version of events contradicts what can be seen on police dashcam video, in which the teenager spins after he was shot and falls to the ground – seemingly incapacitated – as the officer continues to fire shot after shot into his body. The indictment further alleges that officers lied when they said Mr. McDonald ignored Mr. Van Dyke's verbal commands and that one of the officers signed off on a report that claimed the other two officers were, in fact, victims of an attack by McDonald.
"The co-conspirators created police reports in the critical early hours and days following the killing of Laquan McDonald that contained important false information," says the indictment in which the three are charged with felony counts of obstruction of justice, official misconduct and conspiracy.
The indictments mark the latest chapter in what has been one of the most troubling events in the history of a police force dogged by allegations of racism, brutality, and the protection of officers who brutalize African-Americans. The video sparked massive protests, cost the police superintendent his job, and left the city scrambling to implement reforms to regain shattered public trust.
In January, the Department of Justice issued a scathing report that found the department had violated the constitutional rights of residents for years, including by too often using excessive force and killing suspects who posed no threat.
Around the country, there are renewed questions whether the legal system is willing to punish officers, particularly after two police officers – one in in Milwaukee and the other in St. Paul, Minnesota – were acquitted and a mistrial was declared in Cincinnati in the shootings of blacks that were captured by video.
Patricia Brown Holmes – appointed special prosecutor last July to investigate officers at the scene and involved in the investigation of the shooting – said in a news release that the three – David March, Joseph Walsh and Thomas Gaffney – "coordinated their activities to protect each other and other members of the Chicago Police Department," including by filing false police reports, ignoring contrary evidence, and not even attempting to interview key witnesses.
"The indictment makes clear that these defendants did more than merely obey an unofficial 'code of silence," Ms. Holmes said in the statement. "It alleges that they lied about what occurred to prevent independent criminal investigators from learning the truth."
The officers allegedly began to conspire almost immediately on the day of the shooting, "to conceal the true facts of the events surrounding the killing of Laquan McDonald" and "to shield their fellow officer from criminal investigation and prosecution."
The indictment alleges that the officers understood that, if video and other evidence became public, "it would inexorably lead to a thorough criminal investigation by an independent body and likely criminal charges."
Jeffrey Neslund, an attorney who helped negotiate a $5 million settlement with the city on behalf of the McDonald family, welcomed the indictments.
"This is the same thing that our investigation showed back when we were negotiating with the city in 2015, that there was a cover-up," he said.
Van Dyke was charged more than a year after the shooting with first-degree murder on the same day that the city – under orders from a judge – made public the dashboard camera video. He has pleaded not guilty.
His attorney Dan Herbert released a fiery statement late Tuesday, alleging the indictment will silence potential witnesses and is "further proof that the government is determined to prevent" Van Dyke from having a fair trial.
If convicted, the three officers could face years in prison. The official misconduct charge alone carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison and a $25,000 fine.
The officers weren't arrested and will be allowed to show up on their own accord at their arraignment on July 10, Holmes said. Asked why, she told a news conference later Tuesday "it's very typical for a situation like this to give a courtesy call to the defendants" and, if they're not deemed dangerous or a flight risk, to let them appear at their future arraignment.