Former Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke Testifies In His Own Murder Trial
Former Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke testified in a trial, where he is accused of first-degree murder and other offenses. He shot Laquan McDonald 16 times and killed him.
His defense team called him to the witness stand in an effort to show the jury that Van Dyke never had any intent to murder McDonald. They claim the shooting was justified because Van Dyke perceived a threat, since McDonald had a knife and was closing in on him.
But Assistant Special Prosecutor Jody Gleason confronted Van Dyke with his testimony about the shooting and showed how his recollection of the shooting was different from what appears in dashcam video and even in a reconstructed animation that was commissioned by the defense to supposedly show Van Dyke’s perspective.
Gleason recalled how Van Dyke maintained right after the shooting that McDonald brought a knife up over his chest and pointed it at him. Van Dyke confirmed while testifying that this was the story he told about the shooting.
“You’ve sat here for several days. Where do you see that on the video?” Gleason asked.
Van Dyke paused for a long time. Instead of answering the question, he played dumb. “I don’t see a video.”
Gleason tried again. “You’ve sat here for several days and watched several videos, haven’t you?” Van Dyke said, “Yes.” And Gleason added, “You haven’t seen Laquan McDonald do that on one of those videos?”
“The video doesn’t show my perspective,” Van Dyke answered.
Gleason moved away from the dashcam video of the shooting and asked about the animation. It was created by a company in California known as 3D-Forensic. CEO Jason Fries testified in the trial about this video, which was put together based on forensic evidence from the scene of the shooting. The defense believed it would better convince the jury that McDonald was a threat.
“How about the animation?” Gleason wondered. As the animation was played, she asked, “There’s your perspective, right? Is that it?”
“No, it’s not my perspective because it’s showing the back of my head and not from my eye level and my—It’s not showing what I saw. It’s showing the back of my head and above me. So it’s not my perspective,” Van Dyke maintained.
“Let me ask you this: It says officer view on that and that’s what your expert presented as your view, is that correct?” Gleason added. But Van Dyke suggested that was beyond anything he could answer.
Gleason continued, “Were you sitting here the last couple of days when your expert testified?”
“That’s correct,” Van Dyke replied.
“And he testified that this was from your viewpoint, correct?” Gleason asked.
Van Dyke answered, “I don’t know.”
“Do you see in that video at all Laquan McDonald raising the knife?” Gleason added
“No, I don’t,” Van Dyke testified.
The prosecution also confronted Van Dyke over his claim that he made a decision to stop shooting.
“When was that?” Gleason asked.
“Once I recognized that he hit the ground,” Van Dyke testified.
“Well, he hit the ground, and you continued to shoot, correct?” Gleason added.
After a pause, Van Dyke answered, “On my approach, yes.”
Gleason suggested he had not stopped shooting while approaching McDonald’s body, which was fatally wounded and bleeding on the ground. Van Dyke became frustrated with the question and attempted to clarify.
“After I reassessed the situation, I did fire after that. Yes I did,” Van Dyke answered.
“When was it that you reassessed?” Gleason asked.
“After I lowered my weapon,” Van Dyke testified.
“When did you lower your weapon?” Gleason asked.
“After I recognized the fact that he fell to the ground,” Van Dyke responded. “I lowered my weapon after reassessing the situation. That would have been it.”
“And then you continued shooting after that?” Gleason asked.
“I shot at that knife,” Van Dyke testified. “I wanted him to get rid of that knife.”
Gleason attempted to make the point that police are not trained to shoot at “somebody’s knife.” He agreed police are not.
“Why did you continue to shoot at his knife? That’s not what you’re trained to do,” Gleason asked.
“My focus was just on that knife. I just wanted him to get rid of that knife. That’s all I could think,” Van Dyke testified.
Van Dyke contended McDonald was trying to get up off the ground after he was shot 16 times. But at no point in any video does it appear that McDonald is getting up off the ground.
“You just saw the [dashcam] video. Was there any point in that video where Laquan McDonald was trying to get up?” Gleason asked.
“From that video, it may not show it, but that wasn’t from my perspective ma’am. I was coming at it from a completely different angle,” Van Dyke replied.
Van Dyke heard a radio transmission before responding, which suggested a suspect had popped the tire of a police car. “The whole thing was just shocking to me.”
“Shocking? You responded to several calls over your years of people with knives?” Gleason asked.
“I’ve encountered a few, yes,” Van Dyke said.
When Van Dyke’s attorney, Randy Rueckert, questioned him on the stand, he described pulling up on Pulaski Road, where he shot McDonald. His police vehicle drove around a squad car that was already present. He was chasing McDonald. He got out of his vehicle with his partner, Officer Joseph Walsh, and they were now ahead of McDonald and in front of a Dunkin’ Donuts.
No video shows McDonald ever walking toward the vehicles, but Van Dyke would like the jury to believe McDonald advanced toward him.
“What if anything did you notice about his face?” Rueckert asked.
“His face had no expression. His eyes were just bugging out of his head. He had just these huge white eyes just staring right through me,” Van Dyke testified. (Around this time, Van Dyke says he was yelling at McDonald to drop the knife.)
“When he got ten to fifteen feet away from you, what did he do?” Rueckert asked.
“We never lost eye contact,” Van Dyke replied. “His eyes were bugging out. His face was just expressionless. He turned his torso toward me.”
“What if anything did he do with his arm?” Rueckert asked.
“He waved the knife from his lower right side upward across his body toward my left shoulder,” Van Dyke testified.
Van Dyke said once he realized McDonald was on the ground he stopped shooting, but he also testified that he did not recognize he fired 16 times until the slide locked to indicate he unloaded an entire magazine.
“I could see him starting to push up with his left hand off the ground,” Van Dyke testified. “I see his left shoulder start to come up, and I still see him holding that knife with his right hand, not letting go of it. And his eyes are still bugged out. His face has got no expression on it.”
The testimony that Van Dyke’s eyes were “bugging out” is very similar to the testimony Officer Darren Wilson gave to a grand jury in Missouri after he shot and killed Michael Brown.
“He looked up at me and had the most intense aggressive face,” Wilson testified in that well-known case. “The only way I can describe, [he] looks like a demon, that’s how angry he looked.”
Psychologically, it is evident Van Dyke had to convince himself McDonald had some kind of superhuman abilities in order to justify the act of killing him.
The video that is central to the prosecution’s case does not match up with most of Van Dyke’s testimony. There is never a point where it appears McDonald is getting up with a knife to possibly attack Van Dyke.
At one point in the testimony, Rueckert asked Van Dyke if he had ever unloaded his weapon in his time as a police officer. This was likely intended to communicate to the jury that Van Dyke previously showed restraint before he shot and killed McDonald.
That probably opened the door to the prosecution to ask Van Dyke about misconduct complaints from civilians against him. The prosecution, however, did not pursue any questions related to his record of misconduct.
Civilian allegations against Van Dyke included executing a search warrant and slamming people to the floor with other officers. They all allegedly called everyone “niggers.” He was also accused on another occasion of generally referring to black citizens as “niggers.”
Van Dyke was accused of striking a man in his shoulder and laughing at his disability. He also was involved in an alleged incident where he smelled a cough drop and ordered a man to spit it out. When the man refused, he choked the man.
A recent study found officers like Van Dyke, who face several civilian allegations of misconduct, are more likely to use excessive or lethal force. He was never disciplined by the Chicago Police Department.