The murder trial of Laquan McDonald begins. Is Chicago ready?

SHARE The murder trial of Laquan McDonald begins. Is Chicago ready?

Attorney Daniel Herbert, far left, speaks before the judge as his client, Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke, far right, listens in during a hearing last month in the shooting death of Laquan McDonald, at the Leighton Criminal Court Building. | Antonio Perez/ Chicago Tribune pool, file photo

Is Chicago ready?

On Wednesday, the trial of Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke for the murder of Laquan McDonald kicks off at the Cook County criminal courthouse, at 26th Street and California Avenue.

It has been nearly four, agonizing years since Van Dyke shot 17-year-old Laquan dead, 16 times.


The shooting, allegations of a coverup, and the slow crawl to the courtroom has put Chicago at a crossroads in the debate over police brutality and police-community relations.

That debate that has sometimes simmered and often raged in Chicago since at least 1969, when Black Panthers Fred Hampton and Mark Clark were brutally shot to death by the police.

Are we ready for a conviction? Or an acquittal? Nearly everyone has an opinion.

Eighty-six percent of the people of Cook County are familiar with the case, according to a poll of 399 residents conducted on behalf of Van Dyke’s defense team. Fifty-one percent of those said they believe Van Dyke is “definitely guilty” of murder.

On the South and West sides of Chicago, the people of Laquan’s streets believe Van Dyke is undeniably guilty.

People in neighborhoods that never see police shootings may take a different view, believing that police officers do their best for the worst.

Chicago is entering treacherous territory. During the trial, youth and community activists will protest in the shadow of the courthouse. They vow to shut down California Avenue and demand justice.

A judge or jury will decide, but many others won’t understand, or accept, what many legal experts say — that it is extremely difficult to convict a police officer for murder.

No matter what a dash-cams show, no matter how many witnesses testify, no matter how many cops lie.

“The more you dig into (the Van Dyke case), the less open-and-shut it is,” Steven Greenberg, a veteran defense attorney, told WTTW last week.

“If it’s just the video and that’s it, then it’s over. But when you really get into the nuances of it and what you have to look at and the law on it, it becomes a much murkier picture,” said Greenberg, whose 31 years of professional experience includes high-profile murder trials.

Did Van Dyke perceive Laquan to be a threat? Why would he, and what did he know before he fired his gun? Was his fear “reasonable”? Was he just doing what he was trained to do?

Preliminary motions in the case suggest the defense may put the victim on trial. Van Dyke’s attorneys may call witnesses to testify that Laquan, who was caught up in in the foster and juvenile justice systems, had a “propensity for violence,” the Chicago Sun-Times has reported.

Convictions in police shootings are extremely rare. The closest Cook County has come was the 1995 case of Gregory Becker, who was a white, off-duty police officer, and Joseph Gould, who was a black Streetwise newspaper vendor. Becker shot Gould to death during a street altercation in River North. In 1997, Becker was convicted of official misconduct and involuntary manslaughter and sentenced to 15 years in prison.

It all adds up to a combustible brew.

Are we ready?

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