CHICAGO (CBS) — Three Chicago police officers have been indicted for obstruction of justice and conspiracy, for allegedly trying to cover up the circumstances of the killing of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald in October 2014.
Special Prosecutor Patricia Brown Holmes said Det. David March and patrol officers Joseph Walsh and Thomas Gaffney have been charged with conspiracy, official misconduct, and obstruction of justice. The three allegedly conspired to try to “prevent or shape” an independent probe of McDonald’s shooting on Oct. 20, 2014, at the hands of Officer Jason Van Dyke.
“The indictment makes clear that these defendants did more than merely obey an unofficial ‘code of silence,’ rather it alleges that they lied about what occurred to prevent independent criminal investigators from learning the truth,” Holmes said in a prepared statement.
Van Dyke has been charged with first-degree murder for shooting McDonald 16 times in October 2014, as the teen was apparently walking away from officers.
The Police Department has moved to fire Walsh, who was Van Dyke’s partner. Gaffney also was one of the officers who had responded to reports that McDonald was slashing tires near 41st Street and Pulaski Road. March was the lead detective who ruled McDonald’s shooting justified.
Of the three, Gaffney is the only one still with the department. He has been suspended without pay, CBS 2’s Roseanne Tellez reports.
“The shooting of Laquan McDonald forever changed the Chicago Police Department and I am committed to implementing policies and training to prevent an incident like this from happening again,” Chicago Police Supt. Eddie Johnson said through a spokesperson. “Throughout this investigation, CPD has fully cooperated with prosecutors and will continue to do so. We will also continue to implement meaningful reforms that build community trust, provide greater training and resources to our dedicated officers, and make Chicago safer.”
The Fraternal Order of Police declined to comment.
According to the indictment, the three officers conspired shortly after the shooting “to conceal the true facts of the events surrounding the killing of Laquan McDonald … to shield their fellow officer (identified only as Individual A) from criminal investigation and prosecution.”
“The defendants allegedly lied about what occurred and mischaracterized the video recordings so that independent criminal investigators would not learn the truth about the killing and the public would not see the video recordings,” Holmes’ office said.
The officers are accused of conspiring to protect each other and other officers by falsifying police reports to portray Van Dyke and themselves as victims of an assault by McDonald, and ignoring any information or evidence that contradicted their story.
According to the official police report of the shooting, Walsh said McDonald had advanced at Van Dyke, and was swinging a knife in an “aggressive manner” and “was attacking Van Dyke…with knife attempting to kill (him).”
However, that statement is contradicted by dashcam video of the shooting, which shows Van Dyke shooting McDonald just seconds after getting out of his squad car, while McDonald is walking away from him. The video does not show McDonald swinging the knife at Van Dyke.
Gaffney, whose cruiser’s tire was slashed by McDonald, said he heard the shots, but did not see who shot McDonald, according to the report.
A woman who said she witnessed the shooting, Alma Benitez, has filed a federal lawsuit against more than 40 police officers, claiming she was pressured to retract her statement that the shooting was not justified.
“They didn’t need to shoot him. They didn’t. They basically had him face-to-face. There was no purpose why they had to shoot him,” Alma Benitez told reporters the night of the shooting.
In her lawsuit, Benitez claimed she tried to take pictures and video of the shooting scene on her cell phone, and several of the officers demanded she surrender her phone.
Her lawsuit alleges police later took her into custody, and illegally detained her for approximately six hours, without telling her she had the right to go home at any time. Benitez alleges officers repeatedly told her what she saw was “not really what happened,” and that video of the shooting contradicted what she saw.
The suit also alleges March and other officers filed false police reports about the shooting.
Holmes said her office’s grand jury investigation is continuing. She was appointed last summer to investigate whether other officers at the scene tried to cover up the circumstances of the shooting. Another special prosecutor, Kane County State’s Attorney Joseph McMahon, is handling the murder case against Van Dyke.
March, 58; Walsh, 48; and Gaffney, 43; were expected to appear for arraignment on July 10.
Van Dyke was due to appear for a status hearing in the murder case on Wednesday. Van Dyke’s defense attorney calls the allegations of a coverup false. Dan Herbert says the indictment is proof the government wants to prevent his client from getting a fair trial, by silencing potential witnesses.