Controversial judge gets cover-up case in teen’s death

Laquan McDonald was shot 16 times by officer in 2014


CHICAGO – A Cook County judge with controversial rulings in her past has been appointed to preside over the indictment of three Chicago police officers on charges they helped cover up the circumstances of another cop’s fatal shooting of Laquan McDonald in spite of video evidence to the contrary.

After one judge stepped down from handling the case for unexplained reasons, Judge Diane Cannon was appointed by random computer assignment to oversee the high-profile case, officials said.

Attorneys for the three — former Detective David March, ex-Officer Joseph Walsh and Officer Thomas Gaffney — entered pleas of not guilty on their behalf Monday in a courtroom packed with spectators, including local activists and several officers displaying police badges. Each of the three accused officers was released on his own recognizance.

Laquan McDonald protesters stage a die-in at City Hall in Chicago on Tuesday, Dec. 22, 2015. The teen was shot to death on Oct. 20, 2014.

Myriad of charges
The three face charges of obstruction of justice, official misconduct and conspiracy for allegedly covering up Officer Jason Van Dyke’s actions in fatally shooting McDonald in October 2014. Van Dyke is fighting separate first-degree murder charges.

The case against the three cops was initially assigned Monday to Judge Mary Margaret Brosnahan, but she recused herself without offering an explanation.

The officers returned to the courtroom of LeRoy Martin Jr., presiding judge of the criminal division, for another try. This time the random pick went to Cannon, a Cook County assistant state’s attorney for 15 years before being elected to the bench in 1996.

Harsh demeanor
Cannon, who has battled back from cancer, is known for a somewhat harsh demeanor in court and is generally viewed as being pro-prosecution and pro-police, according to courthouse veterans.

She is perhaps best known for her 2015 acquittal of then-Chicago police Cmdr. Glenn Evans on charges he shoved his gun down Rickey Williams’ throat and threatened to kill him. In throwing out all charges, Cannon belittled evidence of Williams’ DNA on Evans’ service weapon as “of fleeting relevance or significance.”

In May, Cannon abruptly stepped down from handling a murder case after long refusing to do so amid allegations by lawyers with the Bluhm Legal Clinic at Northwestern University’s Pritzker School of Law that she was openly biased toward the defense.

That came less than a week after the judge made bizarre comments while castigating defense lawyers for what she called “a personality defect regarding me” and denying she had called one of the lawyers “Mr. Underpants” behind his back.

Captured on video
The case against Van Dyke and the related prosecution of the three officers has attracted widespread public attention. The shooting was captured on police dashboard camera video that contradicted what Van Dyke and other officers had described.

The charges allege that the three officers, together with Van Dyke himself, lied to exaggerate the threat posed by the 17-year-old McDonald. The video showed Van Dyke shot McDonald 16 times as the Black teen walked away from police while holding a knife.

The court-ordered release of the video — on the same day in November 2015 that Van Dyke was charged with first-degree murder — ignited weeks of protest and provoked a political crisis for Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the Police Department.

Gaffney suspended
Gaffney, the only one of the three still with the department when the indictment came down late last month, was suspended without pay.

It is unclear if any other officers could yet be indicted in the alleged cover-up, but special prosecutor Patricia Brown Holmes said in announcing the indictment two weeks ago that the investigation continues.

After Monday’s court hearing, Holmes declined to comment, as did attorneys for March and Gaffney.


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