Jason Van Dyke trial focus: Final minutes or final hours?

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Jason Van Dyke’s lawyer, Daniel Herbert, motions with the 3-inch blade Laquan McDonald carried the night he was fatally shot, during opening statements Monday in the trial of Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke at the Leighton Criminal Court Building. | Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune/pool

For nearly three years, a few seconds of video showing Jason Van Dyke firing 16 shots into 17-year-old Laquan McDonald have provided the bulk of the evidence in the court of public opinion.

As Van Dyke’s trial for the murder of McDonald began in earnest Monday, both prosecutors and Van Dyke’s lawyers were looking to lengthen the timeline for the jury that will decide Van Dyke’s fate.

In his opening statement, Special Prosecutor Joseph McMahon set the scene a few minutes before Van Dyke arrived at the intersection of 40th Street and Pulaski Road on Oct. 20, 2014, noting how a fellow officer had trailed McDonald for several minutes — even after McDonald had stabbed a tire and the windshield of his squad car — without firing a shot. Van Dyke opened fire within six seconds of getting there.

ANALYSIS

Van Dyke’s lawyer, Dan Herbert, wanted jurors to consider a criminal “rampage” that stretched back 24 hours before McDonald’s encounter with Van Dyke: an attempted car-jacking on the West Side, smoking PCP and roaming the city with a stolen CTA pass.

The state’s strategy zeroes in on the most powerful evidence in the case — the shooting video was played at least four times during opening statements and the testimony of the first four witnesses — and undermines the defense that any officer would have done the same, said Richard Kling, a law professor at IIT-Kent Law School who attended the trial.

The defense will rely on state law that allows police officers to use force when they feel they or others are in danger. Making McDonald look as dangerous as possible is key for the defense, Kling said.

“The defense, you’ve got to say, ‘This is a bad guy, and (Van Dyke) had to shoot him before he could hurt someone,'” Kling said.

McMahon tried to mitigate what jurors might learn about McDonald’s troubled past in his opening statement, pointing out Van Dyke knew nothing about the teen when he came upon him.

“He didn’t know a single fact about Laquan McDonald,” McMahon said. “What he did know, what he did see, was a black boy walking down the street on Pulaski, toward a chain link fence and having the audacity to ignore the police.”

Special Prosecutor Joseph McMahon shows the jury during his opening statement the knife Laquan McDonald held before he was shot. | Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune pool photo

Special Prosecutor Joseph McMahon shows the jury during his opening statement the knife Laquan McDonald held before he was shot. | Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune pool photo

Several pretrial motions argued Monday further fleshed out the case. The defense sought unsuccessfully to bar prosecutors from talking about how other officers didn’t fire. Herbert argued that evidence would show that Van Dyke’s partner, Joseph Walsh, was “going to shoot, but Jason Van Dyke was in the line of fire” — implying that Walsh may take the stand. Walsh faces charges in a separate case for allegedly filing false reports to help his partner.

The defense also tried — unsuccessfully — to block prosecutors from implying Van Dyke intended to keep shooting McDonald because he reloaded after firing 16 shots. Sliding in a new clip immediately after running out of bullets is standard police training, Herbert said, stating that a firearms instructor would testify as an expert witness. Both sides are expected to call use-of-force experts.

Herbert did not mention in openings whether Van Dyke would take the stand, a rare step but not an uncommon one in a self-defense case.

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