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Van Dyke's partner, testifying under immunity, says shooting video doesn't accurately depict what he saw

Chicago Tribune logo Chicago Tribune 9/18/2018 Christy Gutowski, Jason Meisner, Stacy St. Clair
a man standing in front of a window: Chicago police Officer Joseph Walsh, left, with attorney Tom Breen is seen following a hearing at the Leighton Criminal Courts Building in Chicago on July 10, 2017. (Nancy Stone / Chicago Tribune) © Nancy Stone / Chicago Tribune

Chicago police Officer Joseph Walsh, left, with attorney Tom Breen is seen following a hearing at the Leighton Criminal Courts Building in Chicago on July 10, 2017.

 (Nancy Stone / Chicago Tribune)

Toward the end of his testimony Tuesday at Jason Van Dyke’s murder trial – and with the defense team’s blessing – former Chicago police Officer Joseph Walsh stepped off the witness stand and walked in front of the jury box.

Walsh, who was Van Dyke’s partner the night that Laquan McDonald was shot, stood about 10 feet away from the jurors. They would play the part of his partner and he would assume the role of McDonald, who was holding a knife and refusing commands to stop.

Walsh then performed his version of events leading up to the shooting, swinging an imaginary knife behind his back and then up to about shoulder height. McDonald, he told the jury, turned his head toward the officers, looking at them with “a stare and a focus beyond us.”

And, with that, Van Dyke opened fire, shooting the 17-year-old Chicago boy 16 times, he testified.

READ MORE: Updates from the second day of testimony in the Van Dyke trial »

Walsh’s dramatic re-enactment didn’t match the police dashboard camera video that has made national headlines and sparked citywide protests.

Still Walsh, who testified under immunity from prosecution but faces his own criminal trial on charges he conspired to cover up the shooting, did not waver from the account he has given from the beginning — one that has led to his own indictment.

Speaking in a clear and unapologetic tone, Walsh hit many of the key points delivered in the defense team’s opening statement just a day earlier: The video, he said, did not accurately depict what Van Dyke saw as McDonald walked down Pulaski Road. The officers believed McDonald posed a genuine threat to public safety, he testified. And all of this was McDonald’s fault.

More than that, his testimony underscored how difficult it is to prosecute a police officer in a shooting when other officers at the scene back up his account. Three officers at the scene that night have testified in the trial’s first two days, and all three have seemed anxious to justify Van Dyke’s actions, even though none of them fired their guns that night.

Walsh, like the officers who took the witness stand Monday, did acknowledge some crucial elements of the prosecution’s case. He testified he and Van Dyke knew nothing about McDonald’s troubled past at the time of the shooting and that teen’s background could not have factored into any decisions they made.

Walsh also told the jury that McDonald made no aggressive acts while he was being followed by police, but the officer testified he was concerned the teen would enter the nearby Burger King or Dunkin Donuts and injure people inside.

Walsh testified he and Van Dyke watched McDonald’s movements before stopping their car on Pulaski Road. Van Dyke, who was the passenger, tried to exit the vehicle immediately and Walsh told him to stay in the squad car. It was only the second time the two men had partnered together.

“I told him not to get out because Laquan McDonald was too close,” Walsh said.

Van Dyke, 40, a veteran of nearly 13 years with the Police Department at the time of the shooting, faces two counts of first-degree murder, 16 counts of aggravated battery and one count of official misconduct for the October 2014 shooting. If convicted of murder, he faces the possibility of spending the rest of his life in prison.

Police dashboard camera video released by court order more than a year later showed Van Dyke opening fire within seconds of exiting his squad car as McDonald, holding a knife, appeared to walk away from police, contradicting reports from officers at the scene that the black teen had threatened officers with the weapon.

The graphic video, released the same day that Van Dyke was charged and suspended without pay, led to months of protests and political upheaval.

In the moments immediately following the shooting, none of the Chicago police officers offered any aid to McDonald or checked the severity of his injuries. Cook County Sheriff’s Deputy Adam Murphy, who was patrolling with a partner that night, arrived at the scene and approached McDonald.

“At that time, I observed that the subject was gasping for air,” Murphy said. “I put on rubber gloves and attempted to give first aid.”

Police dashboard camera video played for the jury showed Murphy donning a pair of blue latex gloves. He testified that he stood just a few feet away from McDonald but didn’t touch him.

“I just kind of bent over, looked at him, told him I heard the ambulance and that help was on the way,” Murphy testified. “He was gasping for air and gurgling.”

Walsh -- who received immunity from state and federal prosecutors in exchange for his testimony – repeatedly told the jury that video does not accurately depict what he and Van Dyke saw. The dash-cam video, which many jurors said they viewed before being selected for the case, was shot from behind, while Van Dyke and Walsh had a forward-facing view of McDonald.

For example, he said, McDonald appears to be walking in the video, but during the officers’ interaction with him before the shooting – including the time that they observed him from their squad car – he was “running, trotting and bouncing.”

“My position, my angle was totally different,” he said of the video.

Walsh confirmed that he drew his gun at the scene, but he testified he was startled when Van Dyke fired his gun. He said he never shot even though he believed McDonald still posed a threat while he was writhing on the street.

"I was confident Officer Van Dyke took necessary action to save himself and myself," he said.

In opening statements, the defense told the jury that Walsh would have shot his gun except that Van Dyke was in his line of fire. Walsh, however, did not go that far in his testimony. He said the two briefly crossed paths when Walsh backpedaled away from McDonald, but he never said he considered firing his own weapon.

The jury was told that Walsh faces charges of obstruction of justice, official misconduct and conspiracy in another court.

Walsh and two other officers face trial on charges they created “police reports in the critical early hours and days following the killing of Laquan McDonald that contained important false information in an attempt to prevent or shape any criminal investigation,” according to an indictment handed down last year by a special grand jury. The three are tentatively slated for a bench trial in November.

The statements made by Walsh during his testimony in the Van Dyke trial cannot be used against him at his own trial.

Walsh, on the force since June 1998, previously has given much the same account as Van Dyke and said the shooting was necessary.

The city’s inspector general, however, found Walsh made numerous false statements and material omissions in his interview with police and the Independent Police Review Authority, the city agency that investigated police-involved shootings at the time.

“Walsh’s actions embody the 'code of silence' that has no legitimate place in CPD,” the report concluded.

The jury was not told about the inspector general’s finding because references to the Police Department’s alleged cover-up have been barred during the trial.

Walsh resigned from the department after the inspector general recommended his dismissal in 2016. But his testimony suggested he still feels close ties to the job, as he introduced himself to the jury as “Officer – former Officer Joseph Walsh.”

At one point during his testimony, Walsh circled himself in a still image from that night at the prosecutor’s request. When asked to circle “the defendant,” he circled McDonald by mistake.

“Sorry,” he said.

Toward the end of the questioning, Walsh agreed with a suggestion by Van Dyke’s attorney, Randy Rueckert, that nothing would have happened to McDonald if he had dropped the knife when ordered to do so. If the teen had raised his arm above his head and surrendered, the gesture “possibly” would have been resolved peacefully, too, he said.

“Someone had to stop this guy, correct?” Rueckert asked.

“Yes,” Walsh answered.

“The guy with the knife?” Rueckert continued.

“Yes,” Walsh said.

Chicago Tribune’s Megan Crepeau contributed.


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