Judge Domenica Stephenson is set to deliver her verdict Thursday to the three officers accused of lying about the shooting, which sparked large protests and accusations of a cover-up after dashcam video of the confrontation emerged 13 months after it happened.
The video, which city officials refused to release until ordered by a judge, showed Van Dyke firing round after round into the 17-year-old, and it conflicted with the officers’ accounts, which stated that McDonald aggressively swung a knife at police and kept trying to get up even after he was shot.
Van Dyke is believed to be the first Chicago officer convicted in a fatal on-duty shooting of an African-American. The other three — officers Thomas Gaffney and Joseph Walsh and detective David March — are thought to the first to be charged with trying to cover up an on-duty shooting. Although their case has not garnered as much attention as Van Dyke’s, many view it as more significant because it challenges the code of silence that critics have long accused the police department of using to cover up its messes.
“This is a criminal prosecution for officers participating in a code of silence, doing what they’ve always done, what’s expected of them,” said Craig Futterman, a University of Chicago law professor who helped secure the release of the video. “But here the message is if you lie, if you cover up, you can go to jail.”
Christy Lopez, a former Justice Department attorney who helped lead an investigation of the police department after the McDonald shooting, said it’s noteworthy that the trial was held in Chicago, where Mayor Rahm Emanuel famously acknowledged the department’s code of silence after the release of the video.
The prosecution of the three officers “gives me optimism that other cities and police departments will come to the same realization that Chicago has and think of police abuse as a systems issue,” Lopez said.
Attorneys for the officers accused of lying about the shooting ridiculed the decision to charge them, telling the court during the trial that the officers merely wrote what they observed or, in March’s case, what the other officers told him they saw. They said there was no evidence that the officers conspired to get their stories straight.
“The state wants you to criminalize police reports,” McKay bellowed at one point.
Robert Weisskopff, a retired Chicago police officer who once headed the lieutenants’ union, expressed worry that the case will cause other officers to be less forthcoming.
“What cops on the street are going to start writing is, ‘We came, we saw, he’s dead,'” he said. “Why would you do any more investigation if you thought you could lose everything if what you believed was true turns out not to be?”
Jim Pasco, executive director of the National Fraternal Order of Police, said officers already shaken by the prosecution of six Baltimore police officers in the 2015 arrest and death of Freddie Gray — all were acquitted — echoed that sentiment.
“What’s the incentive to disclose everything you know if you fear it will be used against you?” he said.
The city isn’t planning the same show of force for Van Dyke’s sentencing that it deployed on the day of the verdict in his trial, when metal barriers lined the street outside the courthouse and dozens of uniformed officers stood every few feet. There are no plans to cancel high school sporting events or nervous parents talking about keeping their kids home from school, like there were on that day.
Although police were not expecting a large turnout of protesters for Van Dyke’s hearing, black community leaders said they would pay close attention to the sentence. The Rev. Marshall Hatch, a prominent black minister on the city’s West Side, said the hopefulness that the black community felt after Van Dyke was convicted will evaporate if he receives a light prison sentence or even walks free.
“It will be like he got away with murder, absolutely,” he said.
Estimates of the sentence Van Dyke might get have varied wildly: The murder charge carries a prison term of four to 20 years, but Gaughan also could just give Van Dyke probation for that count. The aggravated battery charge carries a sentence of six to 30 years behind bars and does not allow for probation alone.
Walsh, March and Gaffney, who is the only one of the three still with the police department, each face charges of official misconduct, conspiracy and obstructing justice. The misconduct charge carries a maximum prison terms of five years. The obstruction charge carries a maximum three-year term. The maximum sentence for conspiracy cannot exceed the sentence for the underlying offenses.