Jason Van Dyke trial: 16 shots — but which ones were fatal?

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Cook County Medical Examiner Dr. Ponni Arunkumar testifies during the trial for the shooting death of Laquan McDonald by Chicago police Officer Jason Van Dyke at the Leighton Criminal Courthouse Wednesday, Sept. 19, 2018, in Chicago. | John J. Kim/Chicago Tribune via AP, Pool

They saw his lifeless face, eyes closed with metal fragments in his teeth.

They saw a chest sewn shut after a hospital trauma team cut it open.

And for more than two hours in a dark courtroom Wednesday, jurors saw each and every gunshot wound on Laquan McDonald’s body. Cook County Medical Examiner Dr. Ponni Arunkumar took the stand in Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke’s murder trial and traced, in painstaking, clinical detail, the path of all 16 bullets that struck McDonald on Oct. 20, 2014.

She said eight of the 16 passed entirely through the teen’s body.

“When all the holes are added, it comes to a total of 24 holes on Laquan,” she told the jury.

On cross-examination, Van Dyke’s defense team seemed intent on showing that only two of the wounds — a shot that went through the teen’s neck and another that went into his chest and lung — killed McDonald. Those shots, defense lawyer Dan Herbert insisted, were the ones that struck McDonald before he hit the ground and that the only ones that caused enough blood loss to have killed McDonald.

When McDonald died — whether on the pavement at 40th and Pulaski Road, in the back of an ambulance or in the emergency room — was one line of questioning pursued by the defense on a day that included testimony from the paramedic who took McDonald to Mount Sinai Hospital and the ER nurse who logged McDonald’s treatment there.

Herbert challenged the medical examiner on her assertion that all 16 shots contributed to McDonald’s death, rather than only a few key wounds.

He seemed to even question whether McDonald was shot 16 times, pointing to a photo of two pools of blood on Pulaski. He asked, “looking at that, would you agree with me that that does not depict a significant amount of blood from somebody that would have been shot 16 times?”

Herbert referred several times to a report by a defense expert — who has yet to testify — who reviewed the autopsy and said two shots were “rapidly fatal.” The defense also has hired a ballistics expert.

Veteran defense lawyer Jim Mullenix said the tactic likely had less to do with the law than it did with overcoming the jurors’ horror at the number of shots that hit McDonald.

“I think (the defense and prosecution) went down a rabbit hole for an emotional reason, not a legal one,” Mullenix said later after watching the testimony on TV.

With the lights dimmed in the courtroom, jurors’ faces were illuminated by the light from monitor screens as each picture was posted starting with a graze wound that cut a red gash through McDonald’s braided hair.

In the courtroom gallery, McDonald’s great-uncle, the Rev. Marvin Hunter, gazed fixedly at the screen, looking away and scowling only when the screen showed a picture of McDonald’s face, his lips pulled back to show where his teeth had been chipped by fragments of bullet or pavement.

Arunkumar said McDonald was shot four times in his right arm, three times in his left arm, twice in his chest, back and right leg, and once in his neck and right hand. He also suffered the graze wound to his scalp.

She also said McDonald tested positive for PCP at a level that could lead to visual disturbances, drowsiness, agitation, hallucinations, aggressiveness and other symptoms.

The debate over when McDonald died emerged as the lawyers questioned the Mount Sinai nurse and the paramedic who brought him there. Prosecutors were keen to show that McDonald was alive for at least some period after the shooting — even after he lay in the street.

Van Dyke’s lawyers pushed for the witnesses to say McDonald died before he reached the hospital. As prosecutors objected, defense attorney Randy Rueckert at one point asked paramedic Mark Smith, “he was dead, you were trying to get him back to life?” Smith said, “his heart had stopped, and we were doing chest compressions.”

Rueckert also successfully got the nurse, Alan Gayan, to say McDonald was dead when he arrived at Mount Sinai. Assistant Special Prosecutor Joseph Cullen countered by bringing up the fact that a trauma team cut open McDonald’s chest to try to save him.

“Did those doctors work on him for practice, or were they trying to help a person remain alive?” Cullen asked, prompting Herbert to immediately bark out an objection.

Judge Vincent Gaughan took the defense’s side, cutting Cullen off, telling him to “stop the drama.”

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