Judge Vincent Gaughan sentenced former Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke to six years and eight months in state prison for second-degree murder. He killed a black 17 year-old named Laquan McDonald.
It was the first time that a Chicago police officer was sentenced to prison for a shooting in the line of duty . However, the sentence was far shorter than what the prosecution requested and what McDonald’s family and many in the city of Chicago had anticipated.
Marvin Hunter, a great uncle of McDonald, declared on behalf of the family, “This sentence represents the sentence of a second-class citizen. It reduced Laquan McDonald’s life to a second-class citizen. And it suggests to us that there are no laws on the books for a black man that a white man is bound to honor.”
Van Dyke killed Laquan McDonald on October 20, 2014. McDonald was on the south side of Chicago that night. He had a knife in his hand. Police were apparently called to arrest him after a 911 call that alleged he was breaking into trucks in a nearby truck yard.
None of the police on the scene fired their weapon. When Van Dyke arrived, he immediately exited his vehicle with his partner, Officer Joseph Walsh, and unloaded a magazine of bullets into McDonald’s body.
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.
Last October, Van Dyke was found guilty of second-degree murder and 16 counts of aggravated battery for every shot fired into McDonald’s body.
Second-degree murder typically results in a sentence of four to 20 years. A count of aggravated battery is usually six to 30 years. But prosecutors argued the judge could sentence Van Dyke to 18 years in prison by considering the fact that shots to the neck and chest were likely the most fatal shots.
The defense urged the judge to give Van Dyke probation and to sentence him for second-degree murder instead of issuing a sentence for the aggravated battery counts, since the jury found him guilty of first-degree murder plus mitigating factors.
Following the sentencing verdict, defense attorney Daniel Herbert described how Van Dyke was relieved and really happy. Most likely he will only serve a little more than three years of the sentence.
“He really was concerned, as anyone would be, that this was it for him,” Herbert said. “The staples of his life, his loved ones, that’s not going to change. He knows he is going to be a part of his loved ones’ lives.”
Joseph McMahon, who is a state’s attorney for Kane County and was appointed as a special prosecutor for the case, contended this was justice.
“I understand that this sentence is not everything that the McDonald and the Hunter family wanted,” McMahon said. “But this sentence, like the verdict on October 5, does hold this defendant accountable.”
McDonald’s great uncle Marvin Hunter acknowledged the meager justice that was achieved.
“I want to say to everyone, everyone in the city of Chicago and across this country that if they had sentenced him to one minute, it is a victory,” Hunter said. “It is a victory because what has happened in this courtroom today has never happened in the history of this county, and it sets a precedent. And it sends a strong message to unjust police officers that now you can and will go to jail if you’re caught lying, if you’re caught breaking the law.”
Then Hunter described the harsh reality of the sentence issued against Van Dyke.
“This is a sad day for America and the justice system. This man has clearly committed murder, and the murder in which he has committed has been shown all over the world,” Hunter added. “Everyone of any civil and conscious mind knows that this is murder. And the reality of it is we have to do something legislatively to change this.”
“We must begin the process to do something legislatively to change this so that police officers that commit the kinds of crimes that Jason Van Dyke has done, and the three other officers, will be convicted properly for the crimes in which they have committed just like any other citizen in the state of Illinois or in this country.”
Hunter mentioned the Thirteenth Amendment, which allows a black person charged with a class X felony to be put in prison and treated like a slave.
“We have more people in slavery now in 2019 than we had at the height of slavery. If America is serious about getting police reform and getting justice for all, if it’s going to be liberty and justice for all, we must get serious about abolishing slavery in this country.”
Hunter’s words suggest that the family does not blame the judge for the weak sentence. The judge was interpreting a law that has all too often been invoked to shield officers from accountability. He was acting as an arbiter of a system that routinely reinforces racism within institutions.
During the sentencing hearing, the prosecution called Eric Beathett, Jeremy Mayers, and Edward Nance to the witness stand. Each of these individuals are black men who had stories, where Van Dyke abused or brutalized them. Nance was awarded $350,000 in a civil lawsuit filed in federal court.
Nance was slammed face first on the hood of a police car by Van Dyke. His shoulder was injured and required surgery.
Van Dyke also slammed Nance’s back on the car after he turned him over. “Don’t move, motherfucker. Don’t move,” he shouted. Nance was then handcuffed and put on the backseat floor of a police car.
“I didn’t know what happened to my arms, but it hurt very bad. I couldn’t move nothing,” Nance recalled.
While sobbing, Nance shared, “I can’t sleep at night. I sleep for about an hour, hour and a half, and I get up. And I eventually try to go back to sleep. I have anxiety and PTSD, and it brought back a lot of stuff.” (Nance is a military veteran and Van Dyke intensified what was a relatively minor case of post-traumatic stress disorder.)
These men and others like them that filed complaints against Van Dyke were treated with indifference by the Office of Professional Standards (OPS), which became the Independent Police Review Authority (IPRA), which is currently the Civilian Office of Police Accountability (COPA). No official sustained any complaints against Van Dyke.
There is and has never been real police oversight in the city of Chicago. Until the day comes that such accountability exists, residents—especially those from marginalized communities—will be fortunate if officers are charged with crimes let alone convicted and sentenced to any time in prison for their offenses.