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16 shots, 16 counts: New charges in Laquan McDonald shooting case

Jason Van Dyke attends a hearing in front of Judge Vincent Gaughan at the Leighton Criminal Courts Building in Chicago Thursday March 23, 2017

Jason Van Dyke attends a hearing in front of Judge Vincent Gaughan at the Leighton Criminal Courts Building in Chicago on Thursday, March 23, 2017. | Nancy Stone/ Chicago Tribune/Pool

Prosecutors on Thursday tacked on 16 new counts to the first-degree murder charges against Chicago Police officer Jason Van Dyke in the shooting of Laquan McDonald.

A new indictment handed up by a grand jury last week adds the 16 counts of aggravated battery with a firearm, apparently one for each shot Van Dyke fired at McDonald, special prosecutor Joseph McMahon said in a hearing at the Leighton Criminal Courthouse.

The new indictment, returned on March 16, still includes the six counts of first-degree murder and one count of official misconduct that were charged in November 2015, when the case was being handled by former State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez.

Lawyers for Van Dyke had filed motions to dismiss the original charges against Van Dyke, claiming “irregularities” by prosecutors tainted the grand jury that returned the original indictment.

Daniel Herbert, Van Dyke’s lead lawyer, has argued that the grand jury that originally handed up charges against Van Dyke was given false or incorrect information, and that Alvarez raced to file the case because of intense interest in the case. Thursday, Herbert said the new indictment was an acknowledgment that the grand-jury process had been plagued by problems.

“I disagree with Mr. Herbert,” McMahon told Judge Vincent Gaughan.

Van Dyke, 38, is accused of shooting the 17-year-old McDonald 16 times in October 2014. But he wasn’t charged until a year later, after a shocking video of the incident, filmed by a dashboard-mounted camera, was released, prompting protests across the country.

Alvarez turned the case over to a special prosecutor after losing her bid for re-election to Kim Foxx. McMahon, the state’s attorney in west suburban Kane County, was assigned the case in August.

Northwestern University Law School professor Jeffrey Urdangen said the additional charges might have been added out of consideration that prosecutors face a difficult task in convincing a jury to convict a police officer of murder in an on-duty shooting.

“I think it may be a smart move to hedge their bets,” Urdangen said. “These are charges that are going to be easier to prove.”

Defense attorney Steve Greenberg, who represented former Bolingbrook police sergeant Drew Peterson in his 2012 trial, said the move to re-indict Van Dyke was unusual. “If there were problems with the grand jury the first time, maybe you’ve cured that, but that will be up to the judge,” Greenberg said.

Greenberg also thought it was odd prosecutors added the 16 aggravated-battery-with-a-handgun counts, since those are a lesser charge than the first-degree murder counts Van Dyke already was facing.

“If you shoot a guy 16 times, that’s aggravated battery. If you shoot him 16 times and he dies, then that’s murder,” he said. “Either you’ve got the horses to charge someone with murder or you don’t. It’s odd.”

Attorneys for Van Dyke on Feb. 3 filed a second motion seeking to dismiss the murder charges, alleging the Cook County state’s attorney’s office misled a grand jury weighing in on the 2014 shooting.

Defense attorneys already filed a three-page motion in January seeking to dismiss the indictment, arguing that statements Van Dyke made to investigators were improperly used against him.