On anniversary of McDonald video release, no sign of federal case

SHARE On anniversary of McDonald video release, no sign of federal case

U.S. Attorney Zachary Fardon at dais with police Supt. Eddie Johnson (left) on July 26, 2016. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Shortly after Laquan McDonald was killed in a hail of bullets by Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke in October 2014, U.S. Attorney Zachary Fardon huddled with Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez and the FBI to discuss their parallel investigations of the shooting.

Van Dyke is now facing a murder charge in Cook County criminal court, and a Cook County grand jury is investigating whether officers lied in their reports.

What’s less clear is where Fardon’s investigation stands today. One year after his office insisted its investigation “remains active and ongoing,” the federal probe now appears to be on hold.

But former federal prosecutor and Chicago Police Board President Lori Lightfoot shared a different theory Monday during a Better Government Association panel about the legacy of the McDonald shooting on police reform.

“By early December 2014, that case was with the U.S. attorney’s office and the FBI. And then nothing happened,” Lightfoot said. “So frankly, one of the questions that we got to ask ourselves is, what happened with the U.S. attorney’s office? Why is it that now, two years later, nothing’s happened? Now, I think the truth is, that we can all conclude — and there are many former prosecutors here in the room — we know what happened, which is that case got closed.”

She said the U.S. attorney’s office “didn’t do its job.” And when asked why, Lightfoot responded, “I think that’s a question that you’re going to have to ask my friend and former colleague, Zach Fardon, because I think he’s the only one who knows how to answer it.”

RELATED STORY: Has there been enough change a year after McDonald video release?

A spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office wouldn’t comment. But Fardon alluded to the McDonald case during a Sept. 26 speech to the City Club. Fardon discussed the interplay between state and federal prosecutors, and he suggested his office is waiting to see how Cook County’s prosecution plays out.

“When the state decides to charge an officer, my office often will wait rather than risk jamming up the state’s prosecution,” Fardon said. “When we make that decision to wait, we monitor the state case to see how it is resolved, and once the state case is done, we make a decision whether or not to charge federally. In making that decision, the key factor is whether we think the state result, including any prison sentence, has rendered justice.”

Fardon also said there are times when, even if his office has enough evidence to prosecute, he’ll defer to state authorities. He said double jeopardy laws could kick in — and interfere with a state prosecution — if he charges someone first. And the state’s murder and manslaughter charges carry a heavier penalty.

“The state often carries a bigger criminal stick than the feds” when it comes to the use of excessive force by police officers, Fardon said. “Whether we like it or not, that’s the reality.”

Van Dyke’s attorney, Dan Herbert, said he “has no knowledge of the U.S. attorney’s position.”

Cook County Judge Leroy Martin Jr. recently appointed Patricia Brown Holmes as a special prosecutor to investigate whether officers lied to cover up for Van Dyke. Holmes, a former Cook County associate judge and former assistant U.S. attorney, may also look into the conduct of the officers’ supervisors.

A dashboard camera on a police vehicle provided video showing Van Dyke firing at McDonald on Oct 20, 2014, while the troubled 17-year-old walked away with a knife in his hand — contradicting officers’ reports that McDonald lunged at police with the knife.

Chicago Police Supt. Eddie Johnson has moved to fire Van Dyke, along with three officers and a sergeant who he has found lied about the shooting.

The Cook County state’s attorney had opened a criminal investigation on Nov. 4, 2014, after obtaining a copy of the video of the shooting. Fardon then met with Alvarez and the head of the FBI on Dec. 8, 2014 and a federal investigation was opened, authorities said.

On April 15, 2015, the City Council voted to pay McDonald’s family a $5 million legal settlement, before the family even filed a lawsuit. It wasn’t until a year ago — on Nov. 24, 2015 — that the city released the controversial shooting video to the public and Alvarez charged Van Dyke with murder.

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