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Defense goes high-tech to show shooting from Van Dyke’s perspective

Lead defense attorney Daniel Herbert gestures at an animated video portraying Officer Jason Van Dyke and Laquan McDonald as it's shown to the jury during the trial for the shooting death of Laquan McDonald at the Leighton Criminal Court Building on Sept. 25, 2018. | Antonio Perez/pool/Chicago Tribune

For more than two years, grainy dashboard camera footage showing Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke firing 16 shots at Laquan McDonald has been the only vantage point of the fatal 2014 shooting.

On Tuesday, Van Dyke’s lawyers offered a high-tech alternative to the video as they tried to make the case that the 17-year-old McDonald was advancing on Van Dyke and his partner when Van Dyke fired the first shots.

As Van Dyke’s trial continued into its sixth day of testimony— on a day that would have been McDonald’s 21st birthday— Van Dyke’s defense introduced a “laser-based analysis” of the shooting scene and surrounding blocks, a computer animation that purported to show the moments leading up to McDonald’s death from the perspective of Van Dyke and his partner.

“In this case we have video, which in its normal state is two-dimensional,” said Jason Fries, the CEO of 3D-Forensic, a California-based firm that creates similar computer animations for law enforcement agencies and civil attorneys. “Our job is to make it three dimensional.”

Jason Fries testifies during the trial about an animated video portraying Officer Jason Van Dyke and Laquan McDonald.

Whether the animation has added a new dimension to the case remains to be seen. One veteran Chicago lawyer who watched the animation concluded it was not “the lynchpin that we’ve been waiting for.”

The video, which cost the defense five-figures, had at times the jerky motion of a video game, presenting the shooting from an “over-the-shoulder” angle, showing Van Dyke firing as an on-screen counter ticks off the closing distance between him and McDonald. When the counter reaches about 15 feet, the animated Van Dyke fires the first of five shots, with green tracer lines showing the paths of the bullets. The video stops at the first five shots.

But even on the animation, as the gap between them closes, the teen appears to be veering away from Van Dyke, not heading directly toward him, as the first shots are fired. Nor does McDonald ever lift his arms.

The animation was hyped in the defense’s opening statement, which hammered home the point that the dashcam video does not capture the shooting from Van Dyke’s perspective. On the witness stand, Fries testified the video had been created from laser-based measurements, based on scans of the scene, the dashcam video and other surveillance cameras,

Assistant Special Prosecutor Marilyn Hite Ross spent her cross-examination of Fries trying to undermine the video. At one point, after Fries said his video was “just as real as a photograph,” Hite Ross began to call it a “drawing.”

“An animation is a drawing, isn’t it, sir?” Hite Ross asked.

Fries, who had compared his process to the technology used to produce animated films like “Toy Story” and “Monsters, Inc.” quibbled.

“I respectfully disagree with you,” he said.

Hite Ross also attacked relatively small inaccuracies. The animated McDonald is wearing all black, despite the video showing he wore jeans with light pockets on the video. The animated McDonald has the hood of his sweat shirt up, though his braids are visible in the video. Van Dyke’s avatar seemed not to be wearing a bullet-proof vest.

Chicago lawyer Antonio Romanucci last year landed a record-setting $44.7 million verdict in a police misconduct case in federal court. On Tuesday, he said the defense’s animation “indeed shows that McDonald’s shooting was not justified.” He said Herbert emphasized “merely the number of feet” between McDonald and Van Dyke — but that alone doesn’t amount to a threat.

“I don’t see this video, in and of itself, being the lynchpin that we’ve been waiting for,” Romanucci said.

Continuing to fill jurors in on McDonald’s troubled past, the defense also called McDonald’s probation officer to the witness stand. Dina Randazzo served as McDonald’s probation officer up until his death, and she acknowledged he had been scheduled to appear in court, soon after the shooting.

Randazzo said McDonald was taken into custody after a court hearing in August 2013

“He became very upset,” Randazzo said. “And he became combative with sheriffs.”

The defense, though, won’t be able to offer jurors more detail on two other incidents, allegedly involving McDonald. The defense argued McDonald was involved in an attempted car-jacking and had stolen a CTA fare card, but the judge stopped the defense from mentioning those to the jury.

Video by Ashlee Rezin