In an unequivocal defense of how Chicago police handled Laquan McDonald’s murder, Cook County Judge Domenica Stephenson acquitted three officers Thursday of charges they conspired to justify the shooting by falsifying reports and claiming the teen was the aggressor, the Chicago Tribune reports. Stephenson endorsed police actions on the night McDonald was shot by officer Jason Van Dyke, calling the 17-year-old an erratic assailant who ignored commands to drop a small knife. Van Dyke will be sentenced Friday for second-degree murder and 16 counts of aggravated battery. “It is clear … that an officer could reasonably believe that an attack was imminent based upon McDonald’s actions,” Stephenson said. “… Only the officers involved in the incident know what their belief was at the time of the incident. We cannot now view the actions of the officers with the benefit of hindsight as to what they should have believed.”
In acquitting retired detective David March, ex-patrolman Joseph Walsh and officer Thomas Gaffney of conspiracy, official misconduct and obstruction of justice, Stephenson dismantled the crucial testimony of a police officer who alleged her statements were falsified. The judge dismissed the account of a civilian eyewitness who said he was shooed away from the shooting scene. Stephenson, a former prosecutor, downplayed the importance of the now-infamous police dashboard video of the shooting, saying it did not capture the officers’ perspective. The conspiracy case has been seen as a referendum on a so-called code of silence designed to protect officers from accountability for wrongdoing. The indictment by a special grand jury was believed to be the first time a Chicago police officer has faced criminal charges from an alleged cover-up of an on-duty shooting. The ruling stunned McDonald’s family and angered community leaders, who called for protests and political action.