Jury to hear final arguments, weigh conflicting evidence in Van Dyke trial

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Defense attorney Dan Herbert, center, reacts to Cook County Judge Vincent Gaughan’s remarks during the trial for Chicago police Officer Jason Van Dyke, right, in the shooting death of Laquan McDonald, at the Leighton Criminal Court Building on Wednesday. To the left is Special Prosecutor Joe McMahon. | John J. Kim/ Chicago Tribune pool photo

Prosecutors have painted the portrait of a trigger-happy cop who fired 16 bullets into Laquan McDonald, a 17-year-old boy who posed little threat.

The defense has made the case that Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke opened fire only after he found himself in the path of a knife-wielding, bulging-eyed menace, who kept advancing.

Now, the final act is set to begin. Testimony in Van Dyke’s murder trial ended Wednesday, and closing arguments are expected to start Thursday morning.

It will be the last chance for lawyers to sway the jury of eight women and four men after 10 days of testimony.

The final word will go to the team led by Special Prosecutor Joseph McMahon, who carries the burden of proof. Defense attorney Dan Herbert will set out to vindicate his client, who has been cast as the villain for nearly three years. Van Dyke faces two counts of first-degree murder, 16 counts of aggravated battery and one count of official misconduct.

Finally, Cook County Judge Vincent Gaughan will tell the jury on how to apply the law to the evidence —  instructions that could be critical.

The jury will have to sift through the more than 40 witnesses, autopsy photos and videos — plus the testimony of Van Dyke. Here are the key pieces of evidence they’ll have to consider:

Video vs. Animation

Jason Van Dyke would likely never have been charged had there not been dashboard camera video showing the Oct. 20, 2014 shooting. Grainy, without audio and filmed by a police car that was positioned behind McDonald, the footage was played for the jury some two dozen times.

On the witness stand, Van Dyke and his partner, Joseph Walsh, said repeatedly that the video did not show their perspective on the shooting. Van Dyke’s legal team spent tens of thousands of dollars on a computer-animated re-creation of the shooting that showed a digital McDonald closing in on Van Dyke as the officer opens fire.

16 shots vs. 1 shot

Van Dyke fired 16 shots at Laquan McDonald but throughout the trial, his defense team has tried to build the case that there were two volleys of shots, and that a single deadly shot that struck McDonald’s pulmonary artery was “rapidly fatal.”

Cook County Medical Examiner Ponni Arunkumar testified she counted 16 entrance wounds on McDonald’s body — and 24 bullet holes in all, including exit wounds — and that each gunshot wound caused the teen to lose blood. A defense pathologist, Dr. Shaku Teas, disagreed, arguing that the wound to the pulmonary artery would have caused McDonald to bleed out in a matter of minutes or seconds. She also said nearly all of the gunshot wounds could have been received while the teen was standing.

CPD officers vs. Van Dyke

Four officers who were at the scene when McDonald was shot were called to testify, three for the prosecution, and one for the defense. None was eager to say anything that would hurt Van Dyke’s defense. The fact that Van Dyke was the only officer to fire at McDonald was a theme of prosecutors’ questions. Officer Joe McElligott, one of the first officers to encounter McDonald, drew his gun but followed the teen on foot for blocks and never fired, even after McDonald stabbed a tire and the windshield of a police cruiser.

Walsh took the stand as a prosecution witness but largely backed up Van Dyke’s account of the shooting, even acting out the shooting for the jury on cross-examination. Perhaps less helpful for Van Dyke was the lone police witness called by the defense, Leticia Velez, who conceded she never fired and said she called for a union rep right after the shooting— not an ambulance.

Van Dyke vs. Laquan McDonald

Van Dyke’s defense lawyers wanted to show McDonald had a history of violence, so they called several juvenile jail workers, a probation officer and citizens who described run-ins with the teen.

The guards described scuffling with McDonald at various times. But a woman who called 911 on McDonald some 20 hours before he was shot seemed to laugh off her encounter. And a truck driver who told police someone was breaking into trucks — the call that sent Van Dyke to the fatal encounter with McDonald — testified that a young black man slashed at him with the knife but never identified his attacker as McDonald.

What Van Dyke says vs. dashcam video

During Van Dyke’s testimony, jurors saw him wipe away tears as he described the moment he decided to shoot McDonald.

Still, inconsistencies between Van Dyke’s testimony and the dashcam video could hurt him. Van Dyke has given varying descriptions of the allegedly threatening move that McDonald made toward him. And even his own defense’s animation doesn’t show McDonald ever lifting his arms.

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