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Supreme Court denies bid to resentence Jason Van Dyke in Laquan McDonald murder

Jason Van Dyke

Ex-Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke. convicted of murder in the 2014 shooting death of Laquan McDonald | Rock Island Sheriff's Department photo

The nearly seven-year prison sentence handed to Jason Van Dyke for the killing of Laquan McDonald looked likely to stand Tuesday after the Illinois Supreme Court, without explanation, chose not to intervene in the case.

Still, two justices criticized Cook County Judge Vincent Gaughan in their own written opinions. One even called Gaughan’s decisions during the sentencing of the former Chicago cop “clearly improper as a matter of law.”

The pair of dissenting justices suggested it would be appropriate for the Supreme Court to intervene with a supervisory order.

“This dispute clearly involves a matter of the utmost importance to the administration of justice,” Justice P. Scott Neville Jr. wrote.

But the majority of the justices decided not to intervene, a result that pleased Van Dyke’s lawyers. Dan Herbert, who defended Van Dyke at trial, said he hoped the decision would “strike a fatal blow to the political exploitation of the death of Laquan McDonald.”

“Our judicial system may not be perfect,” Herbert said in a statement. “However the bedrock of the system maintains that all defendants, including unpopular ones, are entitled to fair and impartial treatment. Jason Van Dyke is prepared to serve his debt to society and move on with his life in a meaningful and productive manner.”

A jury in October found Van Dyke guilty of second-degree murder and 16 counts of aggravated battery with a firearm for the shooting death of the 17-year-old McDonald. Van Dyke opened fire on McDonald as the teen fled from officers after he had been reported for breaking into trucks on Oct. 20, 2014.

Gaughan sentenced Van Dyke to 81 months behind bars last January. But he chose to sentence Van Dyke only on the second-degree murder count, finding it to be the most serious count Van Dyke faced. Special Prosecutor Joseph McMahon and Attorney General Kwame Raoul took the rare step of filing a petition challenging that decision, saying state law made it clear that the aggravated battery counts Van Dyke faced were to be considered more serious than second-degree murder. They also argued that Van Dyke could be sentenced on each of the 16 counts of aggravated battery with a firearm.

The aggravated battery sentences are longer than for second-degree murder, and second-degree murder sentences can be cut by as much as half with credit for good behavior, meaning Van Dyke could serve fewer than four years in prison. Prison records show he is set to be released Feb. 8, 2022 — in less than three years.

Marco Proano, an imprisoned Chicago cop recently convicted in federal court of civil rights violations, will likely serve more time than Van Dyke. His conviction revolved around an on-duty shooting in which two teens were wounded.

Tuesday’s other dissenting opinion came from Justice Thomas Kilbride, who wrote, “this court should enter a supervisory order directing the trial court to vacate its final sentencing judgment and resentence Van Dyke.”

Justice Mary Jane Theis did not take part in the decision.

The lack of an explanation from the remaining justices clearly frustrated Raoul, who spoke to reporters at a Tuesday afternoon press conference.

“The majority’s denial, without explanation, does not confirm whether Judge Gaughan’s sentence is consistent with Illinois law,” Raoul said. “Nonetheless, we recognize and respect the Supreme Court’s authority.”

McMahon, in a statement, also said he respected the higher court’s decision. But he stressed, “Neither the Supreme Court’s decision today, nor the sentence determined by Judge Gaughan rescinds the felony convictions or undermines the jury’s verdict.”

The Supreme Court’s decision also prompted criticism from mayoral candidates Lori Lightfoot and Toni Preckwinkle.

“Today’s ruling is the latest disappointment in the Jason Van Dyke sentencing, and a sad reminder of the work we must do to create a system that is free of institutional racism and truly holds police accountable for their misconduct, including criminal acts,” Lightfoot said in a statement. “We cannot build trust between police and the communities they serve if officers who commit crimes are not held to the same standards as other defendants.”

Preckwinkle also complained of sentencing disparities at an unrelated news conference on the West Side.

“I think this speaks to the inherent inequities in our criminal justice system in ways that are tragic and devastating,” Preckwinkle said.

Asked whether federal prosecutors should pursue federal civil rights charges against Van Dyke, Preckwinkle said, “I can’t speak to that.”

“But, I will say that I’m disappointed that the Supreme Court decided not to take up the case.”

Contributing: Fran Spielman