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Chicago Trial To Begin: What Happened When Police Killed Laquan McDonald?

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Three current and former Chicago police officers are set to go on trial today. They're charged with lying about what really happened the night police killed 17-year-old Laquan McDonald. Officer Jason Van Dyke was convicted last month of second-degree murder for that shooting. But police reform advocates, like Christy Lopez, say this trial - of the officers who allegedly covered for Van Dyke - this trial may get at deeper issues.

CHRISTY LOPEZ: In some respects, I think this is more important because if we didn't have people willing to cover up for bad officers, we wouldn't have bad officers.

MARTIN: Patrick Smith of our member station WBEZ has more.

PATRICK SMITH, BYLINE: Officer Jason Van Dyke shot McDonald 16 times in October of 2014. He claimed that McDonald attacked him with a knife and that even after he shot him to the ground, he kept trying to get up and attack him again. The shooting was captured by a police dash camera. The video showed McDonald walking away from police, showed him fall almost immediately after Van Dyke opened fire, and showed the teenager crumpled on the pavement as he took shot after shot. But the three police officers on trial backed up Van Dyke's version of what happened.

MICHAEL ROBBINS: Not a single police officer on the scene who wrote up a summary of what they saw said anything that can be reconciled with the video.

SMITH: Michael Robbins is one of the attorneys for McDonald's family.

ROBBINS: You had this complete array of dishonest accounts, and there's this instinctual, immediate move to cover up and to close ranks.

SMITH: Now Chicago police Officer Thomas Gaffney, former Officer Joseph Walsh and former detective David March are set to go on trial because, prosecutors argue, they got together to cook up a story to justify Van Dyke killing McDonald. Here's special prosecutor Patricia Brown Holmes.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PATRICIA BROWN HOLMES: These defendants lied about what occurred during a police-involved shooting. The indictment makes clear that it is unacceptable to obey an unofficial code of silence.

SMITH: Defense attorneys insist there's no conspiracy or any crime at all. They argue that prosecutors pounced on a few routine errors in police reports, exaggerating them to satisfy an outraged public. One attorney for the officers described the basis for the prosecution's case as a few pieces of bad paper. Here's defense attorney James McKay at a pre-trial hearing.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JAMES MCKAY: This whole indictment is a sham, based not on the evidence but on politics.

SMITH: McKay and his co-counsel say prosecutors are basing their case on a meeting between the officers hours after the shooting. But they argue those sorts of meetings are common after police shootings, and there's no conspiracy here. This is a bench trial, meaning a judge, not a jury, will decide the case. And police reform advocates say the outcome is vitally important to rooting out the so-called code of silence among officers.

Christy Lopez worked in the Civil Rights Division at the U.S. Department of Justice until last year and helped lead investigations into police departments across the country, including in Chicago and Ferguson. She says it's rare that officers face any discipline at all for cover-ups, let alone go on trial.

LOPEZ: I hope it sends a message to officers everywhere that it's not worth their careers and it's not worth their integrity to cover up for someone who's violated someone else's rights.

SMITH: Now it will be up to the judge to decide whether these three officers are guilty of obstruction of justice, official misconduct and conspiracy, or if all they did was make mistakes in their paperwork. For NPR News, I'm Patrick Smith in Chicago. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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