CHICAGO – Three Chicago police officers were indicted Tuesday on felony charges that they conspired to cover up the actions of a white police officer who shot and killed 17-year-old Laquan McDonald, saying the officers lied when they alleged the teenager "aggressively" swung a knife at officers and attempted to get up from the ground still armed with the knife after he was shot.
In an indictment approved Monday and announced Tuesday, a Cook County grand jury alleges that one current and two former officers lied about the events of Oct. 20, 2014 when Officer Jason Van Dyke shot the black teenager 16 times.
The narratives of the officers contradict what can be seen on police dashcam video, in which the teenager can be seen spinning after he was shot and falling to the ground as the officer continues to fire shots into his body. The indictment further alleged that officers lied when they said McDonald ignored Van Dyke's verbal commands and that one of the officers reviewed 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 in an attempt to prevent or shape any criminal investigation," according to the indictment in which the three are charged with felony counts of obstruction of justice, official misconduct and conspiracy.
Patricia Brown Holmes, who was appointed special prosecutor last July to investigate officers at the scene and involved in the investigation of the shooting, said in a separate 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 by furnishing false information, making false police reports, failing to report or correct false information, ignoring contrary information or evidence, obstructing justice, failing to perform a mandatory duty, and performing acts each knew to be forbidden to perform..."
"Further, the indictment makes clear that these defendants did more than merely obey an unofficial 'code of silence," Holds said in the statement. "It alleges that they lied about what occurred to prevent independent criminal investigators from learning the truth."
The indictment also alleges that the conspiracy included an effort not to try to locate and interview three witnesses whose accounts of what happened were not consistent with the police version of events.
The officers, the indictment alleges, began to conspire almost immediately on Oct. 20, 2014, "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 refers to that fellow officer only as "Individual A."
Among other steps the officers took was to prepare police reports that falsely portrayed themselves as victims of McDonald, according to the indictment says. It alleges 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."
The indictment, for example, details Walsh's claim — contradicted by the video — in which the officer contends that, "When McDonald got within 12 to 15 feet of the officers he swung the knife toward the officers in an aggressive manner and that as Van dyke was shooting McDonald the teen 'continued moving on the ground, attempting to get up while still armed with the knife."
According to the department, Walsh, who was Van Dyke's partner, and March, a detective, have left the force. Gaffney remains on the force but, per department policy, he has been suspended because of the felony indictment, according to the department.
"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," Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson said in a statement.
Johnson did not comment specifically on the indictment. Kevin Graham, president of the officers' union, said the union has not yet reviewed the indictment and declined to comment because it's an ongoing investigation.
Jeffrey Neslund, an attorney who helped negotiate a $5 million settlement with the city on behalf of the McDonald family, said he was pleased, though not surprised, by 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. "Our investigation and the witnesses we talked to and our view of the case, all showed a cover up."
Neslund said he has tried to contact McDonald's mother but has not been successful.
Van Dyke was charged more than a year later 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.
If convicted, the men could face years in prison. The official misconduct charge alone carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison and a $25,000 fine.