The slaying of Laquan McDonald that has roiled the city for years ended with a prison sentence Friday that only deepened the rifts, as Chicago cop Jason Van Dyke will likely serve a little more than three years in prison after shooting the 17-year-old McDonald 16 times in 2014.
For the family and supporters of Van Dyke, the sentence by Cook County Judge Vincent Gaughan represented hope and a measure of mercy. Prosecutors had asked for 18 to 20 years in prison. Gaughan handed Van Dyke an 81-month sentence, but the 40-year-old officer, now stripped of his powers and facing firing, will likely be paroled after serving only half that time.
Van Dyke’s lawyer, Daniel Herbert, told a waiting throng of reporters in the courthouse lobby that Van Dyke was “happy” when he met with his family in the holding area of Gaughan’s courtroom after the hearing.
“He pulled me in and gave me a hug and it was, you know, he didn’t let go. I mean, it was really, it was special,” Herbert said.
“He truly felt great. I mean, he was not just relieved, he was happy. The first time I’ve seen the guy, honestly, since this whole ordeal started, where he was happy,” Herbert said. “He’s happy about the prospect about life ahead of him.”
‘The sentence of a second-class citizen’
To the family of McDonald and the activists who brought the murder to light, the prison sentence was little more than a slap on the wrist and slap in the face. The sentencing came the day after another judge acquitted three of Van Dyke’s fellow officers on charges they lied to cover up for Van Dyke.
Marvin Hunter, McDonald’s great-uncle, who read the family’s victim impact statement in court, said after the hearing: “This sentence represents the sentence of a second-class citizen. It reduced Laquan McDonald’s life to a second-class citizen.”
“We want to heal,” activist William Calloway said. “We want to be able to create better relationships between law enforcement and the black community.”
“Laquan, we love you . . . He’s the victim here. He always was the victim.”
In his ruling, the judge cut a break for Van Dyke, sentencing him only on the second-degree murder charge a jury convicted him on, not the 16 counts of aggravated battery with a firearm. That decision allows Van Dyke to serve about half the prison sentence under good-time provisions. Defendants must serve at least 85 percent of a sentence for aggravated battery with a firearm.
The last Chicago police officer to be convicted of murder while on-duty was Richard Nuccio five decades ago. He was convicted of murdering a knife-wielding teenager and received a 14-year sentence in 1969.
Van Dyke also will likely serve less time in prison than another Chicago cop, Marco Proano, who was convicted in federal court in 2017 of civil rights violations after firing into a stolen car filled with teenagers, wounding two but killing no one. Proano got five years in prison but will likely serve 85 percent of that sentence under federal rules.
Tears on the witness stand
The sentencing hearing spanned eight hours and brimmed, at times, with emotion.
Van Dyke’s wife, Tiffany, wept on the witness stand as she worried that her husband would be killed during a lengthy stay in prison.
“Both my daughters are very heartbroken,” Tiffany Van Dyke said. “They’ve had the only person — he was the first person to hold them when they were born. He is their absolute everything. He is their life. And they’re torn apart. My children don’t sleep. They don’t eat. They have nightmares. They don’t feel safe in our home.”
Edward Nance cried throughout his testimony too, as he recalled how Van Dyke roughed him up so badly during a bogus traffic stop in 2007 that he needed three surgeries and a pile of pills every day to get through his pain and anxiety.
Nance, who won a $350,000 judgment as a result of his injuries, was so shaken he didn’t even want to look at Van Dyke when asked to identify him in court.
“I don’t wanna,” Nance said as he fought through tears on the witness stand.
When Van Dyke pulled Nance over, Van Dyke came up and told him to “open this motherf—ing door . . . open this motherf—ing door right now,” Nance testified, before Van Dyke began roughing him up.
Van Dyke’s attorneys called nine witnesses to paint a different portrait of their client —a dad who worked three jobs, a caring brother and a cop who hustled and got prime assignments for his effort, including security detail once for President Barack Obama.
Van Dyke’s brother-in-law, Keith Thompson, who identified himself on the witness stand as African-American, denied Van Dyke was a racist and called him a “gentle giant” Friday.
“He’s my brother,” Thompson said.
Van Dyke’s daughters did not attend the trial, but both were at the sentencing, with the oldest taking the stand to defend her dad.
“I have been bullied, teased, picked on, threatened— you name it,” Kaylee Van Dyke, 17, said, reading from a letter. “All because my dad did his job.”
Jason Van Dyke spoke only briefly, rising from his seat and reading softly from crumpled sheet of paper. He expressed more remorse than he did when he took the stand at trial and described his fear in the moment he opened fire at McDonald.
“October 20, 2014 will always be the worst day of my life,” Van Dyke said, and not because it led to him going to prison, “but because I took a life.
“Someone, I can’t remember who, said ‘All life has meaning under all conditions.’”
McMahon: Sentence ‘strikes a balance’
After the sentencing, Special Prosecutor Joseph McMahon, the state’s attorney in west suburban Kane County, said the sentencing balanced holding Van Dyke accountable for murder and his years of service as a police officer.
“I understand that this sentence is not everything that the McDonald and the Hunter family wanted,” McMahon said. “I just spoke with Laquan’s mother. It is still as difficult today as I think it was for her over four years ago, when her son was murdered. But this sentence, like the verdict October 5, does hold this defendant accountable.”
“It strikes a balance between holding Jason Van Dyke accountable, but also recognizing his service as a police officer as well as the fact that otherwise he has no criminal record.”
Retired Cook County judge Daniel Locallo said Friday that Gaughan, a former public defender who presided over high-profile trials including R. Kelly’s 2008 child pornography case, is not known for handing out stiff sentences to first-time offenders, or molding his decisions to avoid public outcry.
“A judge should not be making a decision based on what people are going to think or if people are going to protest. Vince has never been that type of person who has been worried about what people are going to say,” Locallo said. “Sitting in solitary confinement 23 hours a day for four years, I don’t view that as a slap on the wrist.”