Jason Van Dyke might take stand in Laquan McDonald murder trial

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Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke listens as the judge speaks during his hearing on the police shooting death of Laquan McDonald, at Leighton Criminal Court Building, on Thursday, May 31, 2018. | Antonio Perez/ Chicago Tribune

Defense attorneys Thursday hinted at the possibility that Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke may take the stand during his trial in the murder of Laquan McDonald.

The statement by Van Dyke’s lead attorney, tossed off during a lengthy argument Thursday on a prosecution motion to bar defense evidence, was the first time his defense has suggested Van Dyke would testify in the case.

Putting a defendant on the stand is relatively rare in a criminal case. But Van Dyke’s legal team has been building the foundation for a self-defense argument, that Van Dyke opened fire with a volley of 16 shots at McDonald because he and his partner were threatened by the knife-wielding  teen, despite dashboard camera video that shows McDonald walking away from the officers.

On Thursday, attorney Daniel Herbert made an off-hand remark that Van Dyke might testify as he tried to fend off a prosecution motion to bar the defense from talking about the “special abilities” of police officers to perceive threatening behavior from suspects. Judge Vincent Gaughan asked what testimony Herbert would use as a foundation to get the information into the record.

“Well, my client may testify in this case, certainly,” Herbert said, adding more definitively that the defense intends to call experts to break down the shooting, including a police use-of-force expert and a mental health expert who would “testify physical dynamics regarding a police officer that’s involved in a use of deadly force situation and how it’s impact on senses specifically on the sight sense.”

A murder defendant taking the stand to testify about what they saw and felt in the moment they killed someone would be almost essential to a successful self-defense strategy, said Jeffrey Urdangen, director of the Center for Criminal Defense at Northwestern University’s Pritzker School of Law.

But given the video of the shooting — showing McDonald with his back turned when Van Dyke opens fire, and the shooting continuing even as the teen falls to the ground — Urdangen said he doubted Van Dyke could help himself on the witness stand.

“In the typical self-defense case, you would expect a defendant to testify, it’s almost imperative,” he said. “This case presents very different circumstance.”

Thursday’s hearing gave additional glimpses of the tacks Herbert might take at trial. Herbert said he intended to call a witness who had been battered by McDonald while McDonald was using the drug PCP, a substance that was found in the teen’s system after his death, and the defense lawyer said he wanted to admit into evidence the fact that McDonald had admitted to being in a gang during a juvenile court hearing.

Herbert also noted that on the night Van Dyke opened fire on McDonald was the first time Van Dyke fired his gun in the line of duty during a 13-year career.

“He had worked in some of the toughest neighborhoods in city of Chicago, and this was the first time in which my client had ever fired his weapon while on-duty,” Herbert said. “That point is relevant to the state’s characterization that my client was simply a wild cowboy out there, shooting first and asking questions later.”

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