On a chilly night in October 2014, a call went to 911 from a man on Chicago’s South Side, reporting a car break-in and setting in motion a chain of events that would find the alleged perpetrator, Laquan McDonald, lying dead in the middle of South Pulaski Road.
The echoes of the 16 shots that felled the 17-year-old McDonald, a ward of the state with a fairly unremarkable juvenile court record, reverberate throughout Chicago nearly four years after his death. Opening statements are set to begin Monday in the trial of the Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke charged with McDonald’s murder, marking the first time in decades that a Chicago cop has faced murder charges for an on-duty shooting.
The stakes could not be higher for Van Dyke, a veteran cop who faces a life sentence if convicted of first-degree murder in McDonald’s death. An acquittal is likely to convulse the city at least as much as when video of the shooting first was made public in the fall of 2015. Three years later, nearly everyone in Cook County has seen the video captured by a dashboard camera on one of Van Dyke’s fellow officers’ squads. But there still is more to know about the case against Van Dyke.
The hazy dashcam footage of the shooting is likely the most powerful evidence against Van Dyke. Filmed from a squad car parked almost directly behind McDonald, Van Dyke can be seen firing his full magazine of 16 shots into the teen, who appears to be walking away from Van Dyke. It appears 10 to 12 of the bullets struck McDonald after he hit the ground. Once McDonald is down, the only movement appears to be when his body convulses as more bullets hit him.
The video was kept under wraps for more than a year after McDonald’s death, released only to lawyers for his family, who won $5 million for McDonald’s mother without ever filing a lawsuit. After litigation led by independent journalist Brandon Smith and activist Will Calloway, later joined by media organizations, the court ordered the tape to be released by December 2015. Ahead of the deadline, city officials released the video the day before Thanksgiving. Just hours before the video went public, then-Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez announced Van Dyke would be charged with first-degree murder.
How can Van Dyke defend what happened on the video?
Van Dyke’s defense team has clearly staked out a self-defense case and are leaning heavily on state law governing police use of deadly force. In short, police officers are allowed to use deadly force when they fear a suspect is a threat to their safety or that of others. According to police reports, Van Dyke told investigators McDonald was moving toward him then “raised the knife across his chest and over his shoulder, pointing the knife at Van Dyke . . . Van Dyke backpedaled and fired his handgun at McDonald, to stop the attack.”
The video appears to contradict that account — a special prosecutor who indicted the detective who wrote it seems to think so — but the defense intends to introduce a computer animation that will likely attempt to give jurors a viewpoint of the shooting that resembles what Van Dyke might have seen. Defense lawyer Daniel Herbert has said he intends to call Van Dyke’s partner, Joseph Walsh, to testify about what he saw, “and why he didn’t shoot” when his partner did. That implies that Walsh, as he did in his initial statements to investigators the night of the shooting, will back up his partner’s account — though Walsh has been indicted for allegedly trying to cover for Van Dyke by making false statements.
Will Van Dyke testify?
In self-defense cases, it’s not unusual for defendants to testify. Only they can tell jurors what they saw and how they felt. If the plan is to convince them that Van Dyke feared for his life, he’s the only person who can tell them.
However, Van Dyke’s cross-examination could be brutal.
“I think he’s got to justify every time he pulled the trigger,” said Jeffrey Neslund, a former prosecutor who represented McDonald’s family as they sought compensation from the city, and who has read the reports and watched the video probably more closely than any person not involved in Van Dyke’s prosecution.
“You just play the video and freeze it, ask him: ‘Were you in fear of your life here? What about here, after the second shot? What about here after he’s on the ground’ and do that 16 times.”
So, will Van Dyke be found guilty or not?
Police officers are rarely charged with serious crimes in an on-duty shooting, and when they are, they are convicted a little over a third of the time. Since 2005, only 93 have faced murder or manslaughter charges, with 33 getting convicted, according to data compiled by Bowling Green State professor Philip Stinson.
The law is favorable to police officers in shootings, giving them broad latitude to use deadly force when they have “reasonable fear” for their lives or the lives of others. Jurors will have to determine whether an officer acted “reasonably” and juries tend to sympathize with police officers, Stinson said.
“Jurors are generally reluctant to second guess the split-second decisions made by police in potentially violent street encounters,” Stinson said.
What about those jurors?
Jury selection experts say Van Dyke has drawn a favorable panel, and the decision to try the case in front of a jury instead of having a bench trial flies in the face of the conventional wisdom that a jury is more likely to convict a cop of wrongdoing. In the racially charged case of a white police officer shooting a black teenager, Van Dyke will have seven white people on his jury, only one African American, three Latinas and an Asian American. One juror, a Latina in her 20s, said she has applied to be a Chicago police officer, a job she said she’s wanted since she was 12.
What are the charges Van Dyke faces?
Van Dyke has been charged with six counts of first-degree murder, 16 counts of aggravated battery, and one count of official misconduct. The murder charges carry a maximum life sentence.
It is expected that the defense will ask the judge to instruct jurors on the potential lesser counts of second-degree murder or reckless homicide, charges that could be punished by probation. First-degree murder charges may be a heavy lift for prosecutors: they would have to prove that Van Dyke’s intent was to kill McDonald, without any reasonable motivation such as defending himself or his fellow officers.