CHICAGO — Three Chicago police officers on Thursday were found not guilty on all charges that they conspired to protect their colleague who shot and killed teenager Laquan McDonald in 2014.
Officer Thomas Gaffney, ex-Officer Joseph Walsh and former Detective David March were acquitted on charges of conspiracy, obstruction of justice and official misconduct by Cook County Judge Domenica Stephenson.
"This court finds that the state has failed to meet its burden on all charges," Stephenson ruled. "Defendants are discharged."
The defendants, who each faced up to five years behind bars, were all involved in the probe following officer Jason Van Dyke's killing of McDonald.
The three officers opted against having a jury hear their case, and instead asked for a bench trial, leaving their fate in the hands of Judge Stephenson.
“Heart-wrenching," a relieved Walsh said after the verdicts were read. "Heartbreaking for my family, for a year and a half.”
Walsh's lawyer, Todd Pugh, questioned whether the three officers should have ever been brought to trial.
"There never was a case here," Pugh said.
Stephenson spent an hour on the bench picking apart the prosecution's case before delivering her final verdicts.
The defendants sat stoically as the judge spoke, aside from an occasional nod when Stephenson made a point in favor of the defense.
“The truth happened in that courtroom," March's lawyer, James McKay, said. "This case wasn’t even close and these three men were put through hell.”
McDonald's family was disappointed.
"I am surprised ... that this judge will take it upon herself to make the entire country know what I've known all the time, that justice is justice for everybody but African-Americans in this county of Cook," said McDonald's great-uncle Marvin Hunter.
Jurors in Van Dyke’s trial convicted him on Oct. 5, 2018, of second-degree murder for firing 16 times at the McDonald on Oct. 20, 2014.
Officers on the scene found McDonald, 17, armed with a knife and called for an officer with a Taser to respond.
But before that officer could arrive, Van Dyke, who is white, opened fire and shot McDonald as the black teen was walking away from them, dashcam footage of the shooting showed a year later.
When the explosive footage was released, it sparked a series of mass protests around the city.
McDonald family members said they couldn't understand how Van Dyke could be guilty of the shooting while his colleagues were not guilty in the alleged cover-up.
"To say that these men are not guilty is to say that Jason Van Dyke is not guilty," Hunter said. "It is a sad day for America."
Even though the charged officers wrote reports that seemed to differ with the video — and differ in a strikingly similar manner — Stephenson said that's not evidence of a criminal cover-up.
"Two people, with two different vantage points, can witness the same event, but describe it differently," the judge said. "This does not necessarily mean that one of them is lying — rather it could be an indication that they are describing what they saw from their vantage point, with their own perceptions."
Special prosecutor Patricia Brown Holmes said, even though her side didn't win any convictions, the case still helped make police more accountable.
“Disagree with ruling but respect the ruling,” she said. “We respect the system, we respect the fact that we were allowed to."
Ron Safer, the assistant special prosecutor on the case, still said he believes the officers should have been convicted.
"We believe the evidence was sufficient beyond any reasonable doubt," Safer said. "This case was a case with a code of silence. I think the next police officer who thinks about writing a false police report will think twice."
Van Dyke is set to be sentenced on Friday with prosecutors asking that he get at least 18 years in prison and defense lawyers calling for their client to get only probation.
Det. March was assigned to investigate the shooting and deemed it justified, claiming dashcam video supported Van Dyke's version of events. Walsh was Van Dyke's partner and Gaffney was also at the scene of McDonald's killing that night.
Walsh told investigators that McDonald was walking toward Van Dyke and with his arms raised when he was shot, a version of evidence contradicted by the footage, prosecutors said. Gaffney signed off on allegedly false reports that said the officers were injured in their encounter with McDonald, prosecutors said.
The trial also showcased the difficulty officers said they have, in coming forward with critical information about their colleagues.
Officer Dora Fontaine testified that she never saw McDonald threaten any officers at the scene — but that March instructed her to make up that allegation in a report.
"Other officers were calling me a rat, a snitch, a traitor, they wouldn't back me up," she testified. "If I was on a call-in and needed assistance, some officers felt strong enough to say that I didn't deserve to be helped."
Puskar and Eggers reported from Chicago, while Li reported from New York