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Newly disclosed statements from Van Dyke carry more punch than his testimony

Jason Van Dyke, Laquan McDonald

Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke testifies in his own defense Tuesday, Oct. 2, 2018, at his murder trial in the shooting death of Laquan McDonald | Antonio Perez/ Chicago Tribune pool photo

Jason Van Dyke finally told his side of the story Tuesday, but it was his newly disclosed statements from four years ago that will haunt Chicago more than anything he said on the witness stand.

“Oh my God, we’re going to have to shoot the guy,” Van Dyke told his partner as they raced to the scene where minutes later the veteran Chicago police officer would indeed shoot Laquan McDonald 16 times.

“Why don’t they shoot him if he is attacking them?” he had commented minutes earlier, referring to a police radio report that McDonald had punctured the tire of a squad car.

That told me as much about Van Dyke’s frame of mind on the night of Oct. 20, 2014, as anything that came out of his mouth during what I thought was an uneven performance on the witness stand.

Did Van Dyke feel some sense of duty to take up the slack for other police officers who he thought were either too passive or inept to handle the situation?

Or did he feel the need, as prosecutors suggested in their opening statement, to take down McDonald because he was offended by a “black boy” who had the “audacity” to ignore their orders?

A third option is to take Van Dyke at his word, that he felt threatened by the sight of McDonald and his knife and pulled the trigger as he had been trained, the rest deteriorating into a haze.

Maybe he just panicked in an overwrought moment after placing himself in what he conceded was a poor tactical position after exiting his squad car and advancing on McDonald.

Van Dyke’s words en route to the fatal scene will not dissuade those who believe justice in this case means nothing short of a verdict finding Van Dyke guilty of murder.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson, who sat in on the testimony, took Van Dyke’s remarks as evidence of a premeditated murder.

“The premeditation occurred before he even got there,” Jackson told reporters gathered in the courthouse lobby.

Moments earlier with Jackson standing alongside, the Rev. Marvin Hunter, McDonald’s great-uncle, said he did not believe “one word” of Van Dyke’s testimony.

“Not one word,” emphasized Hunter, whose comments were striking because he has been much more of a calming and even-handed voice during the trial than others who will influence how Chicagoans react to an eventual verdict.

I won’t go as far as Hunter. I believed some of what Van Dyke had to say and came away uncertain about much of the rest of it.

It’s been my inclination from the start that a Chicago police officer who fires his weapon while honestly carrying out what he saw as his duty, no matter how mistaken his decision-making, should not be treated as a murderer.

But Van Dyke didn’t do much to put my mind to rest about what he was really thinking that night.

He came across at various points as calculating, at others befuddled, during the cross-examination of Assistant Special Prosecutor Jody Gleason.

He seemed to intentionally break up the rhythm of Gleason’s questioning by asking her to repeat questions aimed at putting him on the spot, and tried to put her on the defensive by correcting misstatements in some of her other question, such as when she referred to Van Dyke’s partner as “detective” instead of officer.

When he teared up and dabbed his eyes with a handkerchief, I didn’t see it as contrived, but I couldn’t tell if he was sad for McDonald or for himself.

Van Dyke testified that he was “very proud” of the fact that he had never previously fired his service weapon on duty during his 13 years on the force prior to shooting McDonald.

I believed him. I also wondered if that’s one reason why one shot became 16, with Van Dyke testifying that he never knew how many shots he had fired until he’d emptied his weapon.

I also believed his description of McDonald with his eyes “bugging out of his head.” Van Dyke is going to see those eyes every day for the rest of his life.

We don’t know yet whether the jury will have the option of finding Van Dyke guilty of a lesser offense. That will be a question for jury instructions, which will be disclosed later this week.

My opinion on that verdict is that the only people who get to make it — who have the tremendous burden of making it — are the 12 jurors who have seen and heard all the evidence.

The rest of Chicago should respectfully accept their decision.