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Trial enters new phase as state rests, but was it enough to convict Van Dyke?

Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke listens in during his murder trial over the shooting of Laquan McDonald. | Antonio Perez / Chicago Tribune pool photo

The case that Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke murdered 17-year-old Laquan McDonald has been made — in only four days.

Whether it will be enough to convict the veteran officer caught up in one of the most closely watched trials in recent Chicago history remains to be seen. The next phase of the trial is set to begin Monday, with one big question looming: Will Van Dyke testify?

Special Prosecutor Joseph McMahon and his team rested their case against Van Dyke early Thursday afternoon. Before they did, they called a man who witnessed McDonald’s fatal shooting while trying to drive his son to a hospital. He said he heard more gunshots after McDonald fell to the ground than before. And prosecutors asked him what he blurted out.

“I’m not going to use the word,” Jose Torres said in the courtroom. “But I said, ‘Why the F are they still shooting him when he’s on the ground?”

Jose Torres, who was sitting in his car and witnessed the shooting, takes the witness stand Thursday during the trial for the shooting death of Laquan McDonald, at the Leighton Criminal Court Building. | Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune pool
Jose Torres, who was sitting in his car and witnessed the shooting, takes the witness stand Thursday during the trial for the shooting death of Laquan McDonald, at the Leighton Criminal Court Building. | Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune pool

The man’s son gave similar testimony earlier this week.

Prosecutors also called Urey Patrick, an ex-FBI agent, veteran and expert in the use of deadly force by police officers. Patrick said he used the dashcam video of McDonald’s Oct. 20, 2014, shooting to assess “the reasonableness of the imminent risk at the moment the officer decides to shoot.”

“My assessment of the situation was that the risk posed by Mr. McDonald did not rise to the necessity of using deadly force to stop him,” Patrick said.

Van Dyke’s defense attorney, Dan Herbert, did his best to poke holes in Patrick’s conclusion. First, he prompted Patrick to acknowledge that a knife — like the one McDonald had in his hand — is a deadly weapon. Then he got the expert to sum up the damage it can do in two words: “a lot.”

Under Herbert’s cross examination, Patrick also said it could “possibly” change his opinion if he knew McDonald was “closing the distance” on Van Dyke, and that in general, video “gives you a bad perspective on distance.”

The infamous video of McDonald’s shooting death played multiple times during Patrick’s testimony. Inside the courtroom was McDonald’s mother, Tina Hunter, who was seated beside the Rev. Jesse Jackson. Hunter’s head slumped down behind a curtain of braids at one point as the video played, and Jackson comforted her.

Hunter later left the courthouse without speaking to reporters who tried to ask her about the prosecutors’ case. Inside the courthouse, it was already being dissected by Chicago’s legal community.

Attorney Antonio Romanucci thought prosecutors ended on a high note. He said Patrick did a good job “explaining that just because someone is carrying a knife you do not unload your magazine clip into that body. And that is very powerful.”

Urey Patrick, a use-of-force expert hired by prosecutors, testifies during the Jason Van Dyke trial for the shooting death of Laquan McDonald at the Leighton Criminal Court Building on Thursday. | Antonio Perez/pool/Chicago Tribune
Urey Patrick, a use-of-force expert hired by prosecutors, testifies during the Jason Van Dyke trial for the shooting death of Laquan McDonald at the Leighton Criminal Court Building on Thursday. | Antonio Perez/pool/Chicago Tribune

But Steve Greenberg, another local defense attorney, said Patrick “gave up a lot of his ground” during cross-examination. As a result, he said, “nobody has been able to say that, ‘I could be in (Van Dyke’s) shoes looking at the same situation and tell you that what he did was wrong, illegal, excessive’ — any of that.”

“I think here that the sort of popular belief was that the prosecution had a head start because of the publicity and the notoriety of the case,” Greenberg said. “Whatever head start they had, I think is gone now.”

Romanucci said the prosecution’s worst day was likely Tuesday. That’s when Van Dyke’s partner the night of the shooting, Joseph Walsh, testified and re-enacted McDonald’s final moments. Romanucci said Walsh “did a fairly good job at saying, ‘What you see on the video is not what happened in person.’”

Video by Ashlee Rezin

The prosecution’s case is one phase of the trial. It is now Van Dyke’s turn to put on a defense if he chooses. His attorneys have suggested they will call their own experts in the use of deadly force by police, ballistics and the physiological effects of stress on human perception.

The defense team will also have to decide — if it hasn’t already — whether Van Dyke should testify. Jurors have been warned they can’t hold it against him if he doesn’t.

Romanucci said Van Dyke “is almost compelled to testify” because his attorneys have made his state of mind at the time of the shooting an issue in the case.

Though Greenberg acknowledged juries like to hear from defendants, he said, “I think the prosecution’s case is not very strong.” And he cautioned that defendants sometimes “testify themselves into a ‘guilty’ from a ‘not guilty.’”

“If (Van Dyke) testifies and the jurors don’t believe his story,” Greenberg said, “then they’re not going to be as concerned with the prosecutor’s case.”