Sixteen million dollars — $1 million for each bullet that Officer Jason Van Dyke fired into Laquan McDonald.
That’s what lawyers representing the mother of the 17-year-old killed in the caught-on-video shooting demanded, according to records obtained by the Chicago Sun-Times.
A month later, they settled with the city of Chicago for $5 million in a deal giving the lawyers what they thought would be a $2 million cut of that, without even filing a lawsuit, though it ended up being $1.8 million.
They didn’t need to sue because they had a copy of a Chicago Police Department video showing Van Dyke firing shot after shot at McDonald, even after the teenager crumpled to the ground and other officers held their fire.
And, as the lawyers argued, that video would prove officers falsified reports of the shooting, which has since cost Supt. Garry McCarthy his job, cast a harsh spotlight on Mayor Rahm Emanuel and brought Justice Department lawyers to Chicago to investigate the police department.
During negotiations, the McDonald family lawyers refused the city’s request to keep the video confidential until the conclusion of the investigation into the shooting, which resulted in Van Dyke’s indictment last week for first-degree murder.
But the lawyers kept the video under wraps anyway as City Hall fought for the next eight months against releasing it to reporters, ultimately doing so only after a judge ruled the city had to.
Here’s how the settlement with McDonald’s family unfolded, based on interviews, court documents and correspondence obtained from the city.
Oct. 20, 2014 — Laquan McDonald, a ward of the state, is walking in the middle of the 4100 block of South Pulaski on the Southwest Side carrying a folding knife when he’s shot and killed by Officer Jason Van Dyke. Pat Camden, spokesman for the Fraternal Order of Police union, tells reporters that McDonald lunged at officers and Van Dyke defended himself.
Shortly after, attorneys in the city’s law department are notified, sources say.
Word soon spreads that dash cameras from responding police cars might have gotten video of the shooting. Craig Futterman, a University of Chicago law professor who studies police accountability, says he got a tip about the video from a source inside the police department.
Nov. 7. 2014 — McDonald’s mother, Tina Hunter, hires attorneys Jeffrey J. Neslund and Michael D. Robbins to investigate her son’s death. She signs an agreement to give them 40 percent of any settlement or judgment. Lawyers in civil rights and wrongful-death cases involving the police typically get about 33 percent.
Robbins said in an interview he was approached by McDonald’s family, who heard about him and Neslund through “word of mouth.” His initial thought: “I didn’t think there was a case if he had lunged at a police officer.”
He also knew the official explanation that the officer feared for his life typical in police shootings. “The police narrative, without exception, is that the use of force is justified and necessary,” Robbins said. “Which it sometimes is.”
Nov. 20, 2014 — A petition is filed in Cook County Circuit Court to resolve McDonald’s estate — whose only asset will be any settlement with the city. McDonald’s mother, Tina Hunter, and his 15-year-old sister eventually are declared the only heirs to share in the settlement.
Nov. 21, 2014 — Neslund subpoenas the police for videos, reports and other records of the shooting and the city Office of Emergency Management and Communications for audio dispatches and 911 calls. Once the materials start coming in, Neslund and Robbins decide they have a case.
Robbins said that at that point, “We knew there was something wrong with the official explanation.”
Feb. 10, 2015 — Activist and writer Jamie Kalven, obtaining the autopsy reporter through a public records request, writes an article for Slate that includes the finding that the teenager was shot 16 times.
March 3, 2015 — The attorneys propose settling in a letter to Thomas Platt, a lawyer for the city. They also demand videos, witness statements and other records and propose an “attorneys’ eyes only agreement” to keep the materials confidential until the deal is finalized. They press to settle “promptly, within weeks.”
Robbins said he wanted to move quickly because he thought Van Dyke could be indicted, and a criminal case might delay for years the settlement of any lawsuit the family might file.
March 6, 2015 — Neslund and Robbins lay out their case in a letter to the city, pointing out that McDonald was shot 16 times and writing: “This horrific and shocking event was witnessed by a number of civilian witnesses as well as police officers. More importantly, the entire shooting was captured by the dash cam video of a responding unit.”
They also write: “Contrary to the false statements the City allowed the F.O.P. spokesman to spin to the media, the dash cam confirms that Mr. McDonald did not ‘lunge’ toward the police.
“This case will undoubtedly bring a microscope of national attention to the shooting itself as well as the City’s pattern, practice and procedures in rubberstamping fatal police shootings of African Americans as ‘justified,’ ” they write. “This particular shooting can be fairly characterized as a gratuitous execution as well as a hate crime.”
The lawyers argue the evidence would show a “code of silence” to cover up wrongdoing in the police department.
“We hereby demand $16,000,000.00 to resolve all claims on behalf of the estate of Laquan McDonald,” they write. “We must insist on a response within seven (7) days.”
March 16, 2015 — Robbins and Neslund meet with Platt and Stephen Patton, City Hall’s chief lawyer, and discuss settlements in other police shootings, including the 2011 shooting of Flint Farmer, which was caught on video, and the 2012 shooting of Rekia Boyd — each of which led to payouts by the city of more than $4 million.
Later, Neslund and Robbins note in a follow-up letter: “None of the cases discussed involve a graphic video which depicts, in vivid detail, a 17-year-old being shot multiple times as he lay helpless on the street.”
March 19, 2015 — Platt emails Robbins and Neslund asking about McDonald and his family, his grades, his 26 arrests, the guests at his wake and funeral — and who paid for his burial. The lawyers respond that Hunter, her boyfriend and relatives paid.
March 23, 2015 — Robbins chastises city officials in a letter to Platt. “We were dismayed to learn that your office shared information from our letter with members of the police department.”
The lawyer writes that his investigation found the police had falsified accounts of the shooting. “One witness whom the police reports alleged did not see the shooting in fact told multiple police officers that he saw the shooting, and it was ‘like an execution.’ Civilian witnesses have told us that they were held against their will for hours, intensively questioned by detectives, during which they were repeatedly pressured by police to change their statements. When the witnesses refused to do so, the investigating officers simply fabricated civilian accounts in the reports.”
If the city won’t settle, Robbins writes, he and Neslund are prepared to sue.
April 6, 2015 — As the attorneys exchange settlement proposals, Robbins objects to requiring the video be kept confidential. “The provision as drafted, that we maintain the confidentiality of the materials — principally the dash cam-video — until the criminal charges are concluded, which could be in effect for years, is entirely unreasonable.”
April 8, 2015 — Platt agrees to drop a section that says releasing records could interfere with the criminal investigation: Robbins then faxes Platt documents signed by Tina Hunter authorizing the attorneys to settle for $5 million.
April 13, 2015 — Patton urges the Chicago City Council Finance Committee to approve the deal, saying: “Attorneys for the estate will argue that Mr. McDonald did not pose any immediate threat of death or great bodily harm to Officer A and that instead McDonald, as I mentioned before, was walking away from police when he was shot, and they will argue that the videotape supports their version of events. This is kind of a unique case where we had the original two officers who arrived at the scene follow Mr. McDonald for some number of blocks and manner of minutes and never saw fit to discharge their weapons.”
Patton notes that McDonald’s attorneys originally asked for $16 million and city attorneys talked them down to $5 million, in line with the city’s “assessment of liability.”
On a unanimous voice vote, the committee approves the settlement.
April 15, 2015 — The full City Council approves it 47-0.
July 22, 2015 — Associate Judge Susan Coleman rules that McDonald’s father,Joseph Weaks, isn’t entitled to any part of the estate after hearing arguments that he hadn’t been involved in his son’s life.
Aug. 4, 2015 — The police department denies a request from journalist Brandon Smith for copies of any shooting video: “To the extent that any video related to the shooting of Laquan McDonald exists,” releasing it could cause “irreparable harm” to the ongoing investigation.
Smith sues the police department the next day.
Neslund and Robbins also decline to release the video.
“No. 1, Laquan’s mother didn’t want it,” Robbins said. “It was pretty clear that the video was going to become public somehow some way. She was supportive of us not releasing it. Also, the prosecutors encouraged us not to release it because of the criminal investigation. They were concerned that people go to the grand jury not having seen the video.”
Aug. 26, 2015 — Judge Coleman approves the settlement of McDonald’s estate.
McDonald’s mother gets 45 percent of the money from the city — $2.25 million. Her attorneys get 40 percent of her share — $900,000. McDonald’s mother will get monthly payments of $2,821 for 20 years.
Robbins defended the legal fees: “Forty percent isn’t necessarily higher than usual.”
McDonald’s sister gets 55 percent of the settlement — $2.75 million. Neslund and Robbins also get a third of her share — $916,667. The sister will get monthly payments until 2060.
Nov. 19, 2015 — Another judge, ruling on Smith’s suit, orders the video released. The city complies the following week, hours after Van Dyke is charged with murder.