A jury found former Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke guilty of second-degree murder. He fired 16 shots that killed Laquan McDonald.
Van Dyke was also found guilty of 16 counts of aggravated battery for each shot fired but not guilty of official misconduct.
Judge Vincent Gaughan revoked Van Dyke’s bail. He was immediately taken into custody as a convicted felon.
Several officers from the Chicago Police Department engaged in an extensive coverup for Van Dyke, and there are other officers who face charges, which include conspiracy, official misconduct, and obstruction of justice for “filing false reports.”
McDonald was 17 years-old when he was shot by Van Dyke on October 20, 2014. He was on Pulaski Road on the south side of Chicago that night. He had a knife in his hand. Police were called to arrest him after a 911 call that alleged he was breaking into trucks in a nearby truck yard.
A police transmission over the radio indicated McDonald had popped a tire on a police vehicle. Multiple officers attempted to surround the teenager, but they did not fire their weapons because they believed they could wait for a Taser and use that to effect an arrest.
Van Dyke arrived on the scene. He exited his vehicle with his partner, Officer Joseph Walsh, and seconds later, he unloaded an entire magazine of bullets into McDonald.
Walsh flinched. He was not prepared for Van Dyke to shoot. The body bled out on the street, and after Van Dyke reloaded, he fired some more bullets in the direction of McDonald because he was still gripping the knife.
Special Prosecutor Joseph McMahon delivered the final argument for the prosecution before the jury began deliberating. He listed off all the alternatives Van Dyke had to shooting McDonald. He could have bumped McDonald with his vehicle. He could have helped officers hem him in so he was unable to leave Pulaski Road. He could have waited for the Taser.
“Someone needed to arrest Laquan McDonald, not stop him with a hail of gunfire,” McMahon declared. “That’s not self-defense. That is not fear for public safety. That’s the defendant coming in and shooting this kid because Laquan McDonald was not respecting the authority of the Chicago Police Department and the orders to stop and drop the knife.”
Van Dyke’s attorney Dan Herbert gave the closing argument for the defense. In Van Dyke’s version of the shooting, McDonald was hopped up on PCP. Van Dyke testified that McDonald’s eyes were “bugging out.” His face was “expressionless.” McDonald closed in on him, and Van Dyke responded to a threat by unloading his weapon.
Herbert told the jury McDonald had “big bulging eyes.” He compared McDonald to a monster in a horror film. “When that monster turns and looks at the victim, that’s when the music starts to play.” He also suggested if McDonald was a boy scout carrying a knife it may have been wrong for Van Dyke to shoot and kill him.
When McMahon started the prosecution’s final closing argument, he asked what the difference was between a boy scout and McDonald.
The state had to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Van Dyke was “not justified in using the force which he used.” Plus, the jury was able to consider the defense’s allegations that Laquan McDonald committed “acts of violence.”
“A police officer need not retreat or desist from efforts to make a lawful arrest because of resistance or threatened resistance to the arrest,” Judge Vincent Gaughan instructed the jury. “He is justified in his use of any force, which he reasonably believes to be necessary to effect an arrest or defend himself and/or another from bodily harm while making the arrest.”
The jury was further instructed that a “mitigating factor” existed to reduce the offense from first-degree murder to second-degree murder “if at the time of the killing the defendant believed that circumstances exist which would justify the deadly force he uses but his belief that such circumstances exist is unreasonable.”
“A person commits the offense of first-degree murder when he kills an individual without lawful justification if in performing the acts which caused the death he intended to kill or bring bodily harm to that individual or he knows that such acts would cause death to that individual or he knows that such acts create a strong probability of death or great bodily harm to that individual,” Gaughan informed the jury.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the city of Chicago initially engaged in a coverup to conceal video of the shooting and protect Van Dyke and the Chicago Police Department. Chicago police maintained McDonald had been a “crazed” person with a knife, who slashed the tires of a squad car. Police further claimed he refused to drop the knife, and there was no choice but to shoot him. And, while Van Dyke was put on desk duty while investigations took place, he was not fired or suspended.
In April 2015, the FBI launched an investigation into the shooting, and more significantly, the city of Chicago issued a $5 million settlement to McDonald’s family. One of the terms of the settlement included a prohibition barring the family and their attorney from releasing the dash cam video of the shooting. Essentially, the city paid the family to keep details of how their son was executed by police a secret.
Eventually, a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed by independent journalist Brandon Smith and the work of the Invisible Institute, which published details from the autopsy report, forced more attention on the case. A judge ordered the video to be released, and when it did, prosecutors were put in a political situation where they had to charge Van Dyke with murder.
As the Chicago Sun-Times reported, a document released the same day as the jury started its deliberation showed a sergeant believed the department should be “applauding” Van Dyke, “not second guessing him.” He also suggested McDonald “chose his fate. Possibly suicide by police.”
Officers, along with Van Dyke, met after the shooting at “Area Central headquarters” to speak with detectives about what happened. No one was separated individually. A prosecutor contends this was “an attempt to conceal the true facts of the events surrounding the killing of Laquan McDonald.”
Several civilian complaints of misconduct were filed against Van Dyke while he was an officer. They included one complaint that he executed a search warrant and slammed 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.”
One other complaint accused Van Dyke 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, were more likely to use excessive or lethal force. He was never disciplined by the Chicago Police Department.
Tensions were high before the verdict was read by the jury, with several schools closing early and events planned for the evening canceled. Four thousand additional police were deployed to the streets of Chicago. However, it was not protesters who escalated tensions but rather institutions that spread fear of what would happen if Van Dyke was not held accountable.