Jason Van Dyke murder trial: 5 things to know about the case so far

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Attorney Daniel Herbert and his client, Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke, listen to the judge during the trial for the killing of Laquan McDonald at the Leighton Criminal Court Building earlier this month. | Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune pool photo

Prosecutors on Thursday wrapped up their case against Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke in the Laquan McDonald murder trial. With the defense set to start their case Monday, here’s a breakdown of key points from the first week of testimony at trial.

1. The case against Van Dyke, in brief

Boiled down, prosecutors say Van Dyke showed up at the intersection of 41st Street and South Pulaski Road the night of Oct. 20, 2014, and within seconds fired shots at the 17-year-old McDonald as the teen walked away from Van Dyke and his partner. Opening fire on the teen wasn’t necessary, according to prosecution experts on the use of deadly force — and prosecutors also have taken pains to contrast Van Dyke’s decision to shoot with the actions of eight other officers at the scene that night, none of whom fired a shot. Prosecutors also have been at pains to show that every one of the 16 shots Van Dyke fired hit McDonald, and each wound contributed to the blood loss that killed him.

2. Van Dyke’s ex-partner still has his back

Joseph Walsh, who faces criminal charges in a separate case for obstructing justice after allegedly giving false statements about the shooting, testified under a grant of immunity from prosecutors. But he might turn out to be the best witness for the defense. Walsh was standing just a few feet away from Van Dyke when Van Dyke opened fire — jurors could see him flinch at the sound of the first shot on the video — and when questioned about the shooting video, he pointed out, repeatedly, that the dashboard camera was not filming from the same angle he and Van Dyke had.

Walsh’s testimony seemed to keep the jurors rapt — especially when, on cross-examination by defense lawyers, he re-enacted the role of McDonald in the seconds before Van Dyke opened fire. Walsh turned his head toward jurors, claiming McDonald did just before the first shots “with stare and a focus beyond us, like that.”

Walsh also spelled out how he, and by proxy Van Dyke, were reading the situation that unfolded before them: In Walsh’s take, the two officers were trying to block the knife-wielding McDonald from making a break for a Dunkin’ Donuts filled with customers when they pulled up alongside the teen. If Van Dyke decides not to testify, it will likely be because he and his defense team think his partner made his case for him.

Prosecutors pointed out that Walsh did have the same perspective on McDonald as his partner but also didn’t fire a shot. Also possibly damaging for the defense, on the video, Walsh seems to back away while Van Dyke advances, and Walsh also said that he had stop Van Dyke from jumping out of the car when they initially rolled up on McDonald because Walsh felt they were “too close.”

3. Jurors have seen some gruesome images

Special Prosecutor Joseph McMahon played the dashboard camera video of Van Dyke shooting McDonald 16 times during his opening statement — and dramatically counted off the shots later in his monologue for the jurors — and the video has played about a dozen times since, in slow-motion, frame-by-frame and video stills, during the testimony of witnesses. Each time it’s played, Van Dyke’s lawyers point out on cross-examination that the video is filmed from behind McDonald, not the perspective of Van Dyke or his partner.

Additionally, jurors on Wednesday saw two dozen photographs from McDonald’s autopsy, with closeups of entry wounds and exit wounds — “24 holes in Laquan” in all, according to Cook County Medical Examiner Ponni Arunkumar, who provided the narration for those images over more than four hours on the stand. One frame, which drew a scowl from McDonald’s great uncle, who was watching from the courtroom gallery, showed a portion of McDonald’s face, with a forceps pulling back his lips to show where bullet fragments had struck his teeth.

4. The defense is keying on which shots killed McDonald

Arunkumar’s testimony was drawn out by cross-examination by lead defense lawyer Dan Herbert, who questioned the medical examiner about her opinion that there was no way of telling whether McDonald was standing or laying on the ground when a given bullet made impact, and also on whether every wound she diagramed came from a direct hit by Van Dyke. Arunkumar on direct had said that each wound caused McDonald to lose blood, and she was clear that McDonald had 16 entrance wounds.

Herbert pointed to a report from a pathologist hired by the defense — who likely will take the stand this coming week, as Van Dyke’s team puts on their defense — that reached different conclusions: a handful of the shots, one to the neck and another to the chest, were likely “rapidly fatal.” When cross-examining the paramedic who took McDonald from the scene and the ER nurse who logged his treatment notes at Mt. Sinai Hospital, the defense has insisted that McDonald was dead before he reached the hospital.

It’s not clear why the defense is taking this tack: if McDonald died shortly after he hit the ground, it undermines the idea that he still posed a threat and Van Dyke was justified in continuing to fire at the teen after he hit the ground. Defense lawyers who have been watching the trial suggest that Herbert wants to show there were separate barrages of shots, with the initial volley coming as McDonald was standing and moving toward the officers. If that initial volley was fatal — and justified — it might give sympathetic jurors a reason to vote for acquittal if they are troubled by the subsequent shots fired while McDonald was on the ground. If McDonald died quickly, it might also help jurors overcome other images on the video: officers standing around after the shooting as McDonald lay limp on the ground.

5. Things could have gone differently on Oct. 20, 2014

Video evidence has captured images that show there could have been a different conclusion to the chain of events that started with the first 911 call the night Van Dyke shot McDonald.

Joseph McElligott and his partner were the first officers to encounter McDonald the night of the shooting, and McElligott testified he followed McDonald on foot for several blocks with his gun trained on the teen — but never fired, not when McDonald flicked open the 3-inch pocketknife he was carrying, and not even when the teen stabbed the tire and then the windshield of his police cruiser.

Video from surveillance cameras, showing McDonald walking in the beam of the cruiser’s flashlight, with McElligott just a few feet behind him, is a stark contrast to the dashcam video of the shooting that has been on a loop throughout the trial.

Dashboard camera footage from Chicago Police Officer David Ivankovich also provided some tragic imagery: Ivankovich was the first officer to arrive at the shooting scene with a Taser, and the video showed him racing to 41st and Pulaski from about four miles away. Ivankovich reached the scene seconds after McDonald was shot, the camera showing the teen in a heap on the pavement as Ivankovich’s squad pulls up.

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