Former Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke will leave prison next month after serving more than three years for the murder of Laquan McDonald.
Van Dyke is set to be released Feb. 3, having served three years, three months and nine days of the 81-month sentence handed down after his 2018 conviction for second-degree murder and 16 counts of aggravated battery — one for each bullet he fired at the 17-year-old McDonald as the teen fled from police across a Southwest Side intersection the night of Oct. 20, 2014.
Van Dyke, 43, abandoned appeals of his conviction a year into his sentence, apparently wanting to serve out his time and not endure more of the public controversy and media attention that extended from the night — a year after the shooting — when video of McDonald’s death was released to the public and the three years it took for his case to go to trial.
The Rev. Marvin Hunter, McDonald’s uncle and pastor of Grace Memorial Baptist Church, said he received notice Friday from authorities of Van Dyke’s pending release.
“I’m hoping he’s learned the errors of his ways. I have always asked for justice and not revenge,” Hunter said. “We got as much justice you could get with the players that were there at the time he was on trial. The system needs to be changed, it needs to be overhauled.”
Van Dyke hopes to find a measure of privacy, if not anonymity, once he is released, said Jennifer Blagg, the attorney who handled Van Dyke’s appeal until Van Dyke in 2019 opted to drop any attempt to overturn his conviction.
“This case has taken a huge toll on the family of Laquan, the city of Chicago, and Jason and his family. Jason accepted the verdict and sentence, as he did not appeal,” she said.
“I don’t presume to speak for Jason, but it is my sincere hope that he and his family are given their privacy as they make this transition, with Jason having served the majority of his time in solitary confinement.”
Van Dyke, who has been imprisoned since being led out of the courtroom after the guilty verdict in October 2018, was eligible to shave half the time off his prison term with credit for good behavior because he was convicted of second-degree murder.
But the former police officer’s time in prison was hard, said Van Dyke’s former attorney, Dan Herbert.
While he awaited his sentencing hearing, Van Dyke was transferred from Chicago to a county jail near Illinois’ border with Iowa. After intake into the Illinois Department of Corrections, he was swiftly transferred into a federal prison in Danbury, Connecticut, and suffered a beating by his fellow inmates within hours of being placed in general population there, his lawyers said at the time.
Van Dyke subsequently was moved to a low-security federal facility in Otisville, New York, but was transferred out of the federal Bureau of Prisons system in November 2019, according to BOP records. The state Department of Corrections online inmate locator does not list Van Dyke as an inmate of any Illinois facility.
Over the course of his time in prison, even Van Dyke’s lawyers said they didn’t always know where he was serving his time. Authorities at Danbury had Van Dyke was placed in protective custody immediately after the attack.
High-risk inmates often are placed in what amounts to solitary confinement so that they have almost no interaction with other inmates, a style of custody prison activists have long said is psychological torture. Visits from family were rare, owing to the transfers and security concerns, Herbert said.
“It wasn’t easy for them. He spent most of the time in solitary confinement, so it certainly wasn’t a pleasant experience for him,” Herbert said.
Herbert said Van Dyke had received training to work on HVAC systems while in federal custody and had no plans to ever again work in law enforcement.
“He’s paid his debt to society. Now he hopes he can just move on and have a quiet productive life,” Herbert said.
It is not clear what life will be like on the outside for Van Dyke. Van Dyke did not have plans to leave the Chicago area, Herbert said. The officer, whose wife and children have remained in the city, would have to petition to move outside the state during his two years on supervised release.
While on parole, Van Dyke will have to meet at least monthly with a probation officer and find steady employment. Before his trial, while he was suspended without pay by the department, Van Dyke was hired as a custodian at the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 7 headquarters.
Hunter said he was aware of threats against the officer — a Chicago man this week was sentenced to probation for making threats amid Van Dyke’s trial — and said he and McDonald’s relatives also have been menaced online and in-person by supporters of Van Dyke.
For his part, the pastor said he doesn’t want Van Dyke or his family to be targeted for further reprisal. After getting word of Van Dyke’s release date, Hunter said he began reaching out to State’s Attorney Kim Foxx and legislators to organize a meeting to discuss police reform on Feb. 3. In the years since Van Dyke was sent off to prison, Hunter said he has watched killings of Black men by police become flashpoints across the U.S. and the world, including the George Floyd protests in 2020. He praised the 22-year sentence handed down to Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin, who was convicted of second-degree murder in Floyd’s death.
“People, police officers, who would never have been arrested (for on-duty killings) before are getting arrested now. They are being sentenced to more years, and I think some of that comes from judges seeing what happened here, though the judge should have sentenced (Van Dyke) for much longer,” Hunter said. “If we are going to be a civilized nation, we have to accept the rulings of the court and we have to continue to work and advocate for changes to those laws so that what happened to Laquan McDonald does not happen again.”
Contributing: Frank Main