A judge on Thursday acquitted three Chicago police officers of trying to cover up the 2014 shooting of Laquan McDonald, ruling that the shocking dashcam video of the black teenager's death did not necessarily tell the whole story.
In casting off the prosecution's entire case, Judge Domenica Stephenson seemed to accept many of the same defense arguments that were rejected by jurors who in October convicted officer Jason Van Dyke of second-degree murder and aggravated battery. He is scheduled to be sentenced Friday.
McDonald's family questioned how the two cases could produce such different decisions. His great uncle, the Rev. Marvin Hunter, told reporters that the verdict means "that if you are a police officer you can lie, cheat and steal."
"To say that these men are not guilty is to say that Jason Van Dyke is not guilty." He added: "It is a sad day for America."
Prosecutor Ron Safer said the case put on trial the department's "code of silence," which until recent years city officials denied even existed.
"The next officer is going to think twice about filing a false police report," Safer said. "Do they want to go through this?"
The trial was watched closely by law enforcement and critics of the department, which has long had a reputation for condoning police brutality and misconduct.
Officer Joseph Walsh, Officer Thomas Gaffney and detective David March were accused of conspiracy, official misconduct and obstruction of justice. All but Gaffney have since left the department.
After the verdict, Walsh would say only that the ordeal of being charged and tried was "heart-breaking for my family, a year and a half."
The judge rejected prosecution arguments that the video demonstrated officers were lying when they described McDonald as moving even after he was shot. She repeatedly stated that McDonald was moving after being hit by the first few bullets and refused to relinquish the knife.
"An officer could have reasonably believed an attack was imminent," she said. "It was borne out in the video that McDonald continued to move after he fell to the ground." Those and other comments suggest she accepted an argument that jurors at Van Dyke's trial rejected: that McDonald was a bona fide threat.
The video appeared to show the teen collapsing in a heap after the first few shots and moving in large part because bullets kept striking his body for 10 more seconds.
Referring to at least one officer who disputed the accounts in reports drawn up by the three defendants, the judge said it's not unusual for two witnesses to describe events in starkly different ways.
"It does not necessarily mean that one is lying," she said.
The judge also noted several times that the "vantage point" of various officers who witnessed the shooting were "completely different." That could explain why their accounts did not sync with what millions of people saw in the video.
City Hall released the video to the public in November 2015 — 13 months after the shooting — and acted only because a judge ordered it to do so. The charges against Van Dyke were not announced until the day of the video's release.
The case cost the police superintendent his job and was widely seen as the reason the county's top prosecutor was voted out of office a few months later.
It also triggered a federal investigation, resulting in a blistering report that found Chicago officers routinely used excessive force and violated the rights of residents, particularly minorities. The city implemented a new policy that requires video of fatal police shootings to be released within 60 days, accelerated a program to equip all officers with body cameras and adopted other reforms to change the way police shootings are investigated.