A little less than four years from the day a white Chicago Police Officer, Jason Van Dyke, fired 16 shots at a black 17-year-old teenager, Laquan McDonald, a jury on Friday found the veteran police officer guilty of second-degree murder and 16 counts of aggravated battery.
A jury of eight women and four men voted to convict Van Dyke after about seven hours of deliberations that followed a three-week trial that was among the most closely-watched cases in Chicago history, one that had many in the city debating whether grainy dashcam footage of the fatal shooting showed the justifiable action of an on-duty Chicago Police officer, or a murder.
The 16 shots reverberated well beyond Pulaski Road where McDonald was gunned down the night of Oct. 20, 2014, reaching to the 5th floor of City Hall and the hallways of the U.S. Justice Department. And throughout Chicago’s neighborhoods, L trains and offices, just before 2 p.m. Friday, as the verdict came down, the city stood, transfixed.
Seated beside his attorneys in the hushed courtroom, Van Dyke showed little reaction and took a swig of water as the clerk read off the guilty verdicts — plus one acquittal for the least-serious of the charges, official misconduct. In the courtroom gallery sat Van Dyke’s wife, Tiffany, her face flushed, her eyes red, but her expression stoic. Across the aisle sat McDonald’s great uncle, the Rev. Marvin Hunter, who heaved a sigh.
Judge Vincent Gaughan ordered Van Dyke, who had been free on $1.5 million bond since shortly after he was charged in November 2015, taken into custody. With the same glum expression he has worn for nearly all the trial, Van Dyke rose from his seat, clasped his hands behind his back and walked toward a doorway at the back of the courtroom, trailed by a courtroom security officer.
Van Dyke, 40, will return to court on Oct. 31 for a post-trial hearing. At his sentencing, he faces the prospect of spending decades in prison. The second-degree murder charge carries a sentence of up to 20 years, and each of the aggravated battery counts has a maximum sentence of 30 years.
In the lobby of the Leighton Criminal Court Building, Kane County State’s Attorney Joseph McMahon, who was appointed special prosecutor in the case, said the verdict was “gratifying” and one that would “send out a ripple of hope that our justice system does work for everybody.”
“Laquan McDonald was not a throwaway young man,” McMahon said. “He had his challenges as many people do, and he should have been arrested that night. But that’s where this story should have ended.”
McDonald’s mother, Tina Hunter, was not in the courtroom for the verdict. Afterward, McDonald’s great uncle said her reaction to the verdict was “relief” and “tears of joy.”
“Now we can go home and sleep, knowing Laquan is at peace,” Hunter said.
Van Dyke’s lead defense attorney, Dan Herbert, disagreed with the verdict and predicted a chilling effect on police everywhere.
“It really is kind of a sad day for law enforcement,” Herbert said. “I think that what we are going to have is police officers are going to become security guards. There will not be a police officer getting out of a car to confront somebody.”
Van Dyke opened fire on McDonald as the teen fled from officers after he had been reported for breaking into trucks on a lot near 41st and South Kildare on the West Side. Minutes later, McDonald, who had a history of juvenile arrests and whose autopsy showed he was high on PCP, lay bleeding to death. One of the sad revelations from testimony: an officer armed with a Taser arrived at the scene 20 seconds later.
Testimony from four of the nine other officers who were at the scene that night — including Van Dyke’s partner, Joseph Walsh — proved compelling for jurors. With state law clearly providing protection for police officers who use deadly force when they hold a “reasonable belief” they are in danger, McMahon had hammered home in closings the fact that none of Van Dyke’s fellow officers fired a shot.
When then-Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez announced Van Dyke’s indictment for first-degree murder in 2015 — 13 months after the shooting, and on the day the city released dashboard camera footage showing Van Dyke firing on McDonald — it marked the first time a Chicago police officer had faced murder charges in connection with an on-duty shooting in nearly 50 years.
Nationally, Van Dyke was the 94th police officer to be charged with murder or manslaughter since 2015 and the 34th to be convicted, according to statistics compiled by Bowling Green State University law professor Philip Stinson.
Alvarez was battered in her bid for re-election the next spring over her handling of the case — she insisted that her office delayed putting off charges only because of an FBI investigation of the shooting — and lost to Kim Foxx. After the election, Alvarez opted to let a special prosecutor take over McDonald’s case. McMahon volunteered after another suburban county elected prosecutor declined. A year after taking over, McMahon brought a new indictment, adding the 16 counts of aggravated battery — one for every shot fired at McDonald.
The outrage that followed the release of the video, which Mayor Rahm Emanuel made public only after a Cook County judge ordered city attorneys to release it, sparked protests across the city. Days after demonstrations disrupted the busy Black Friday commerce on the Magnificent Mile, Emanuel fired Police Supt. Garry McCarthy.
Weeks later, the U.S. Department of Justice announced the start of a probe of the police department and a year later issued a damning report. This summer, city officials and Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan announced the proposed terms of a federal consent decree that would leave the department under the oversight of a federal judge for years to come.
Van Dyke’s trial is now destined to be listed alongside other key Chicago police controversies, including the face-off with demonstrators outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention, the 1969 police shooting of Black Panther leader Fred Hampton and decades of alleged torture committed by the so-called midnight crew overseen by Chicago Police Cmdr. Jon Burge — who died during the first week of Van Dyke’s trial.
Van Dyke’s partner, Walsh, who testified for the prosecution under a grant of immunity, faces charges of obstruction of justice and conspiracy in a separate case, alongside two other officers.
In a risky move, Van Dyke himself took the stand, offering up spotty recollection of the shooting that jurors said seemed “rehearsed.” Van Dyke, who said he had never before fired his gun — ”and I am proud of that fact”— said he opened fire after the teen walked toward him, looked at him and raised a knife. Van Dyke had been standing outside his car for only six seconds when he opened fire.
“His face had no expression,” Van Dyke said. “His eyes were just bugging out of his head. He had just these huge white eyes, just staring right through me.”
After the first volley of shots, Van Dyke testified McDonald crumpled to the pavement then appeared to try to get up, still holding the knife, so he fired a second fusillade.
“I was shooting at the knife. I just wanted him to drop that knife,” Van Dyke said.
The dashcam video showed 16 seconds passed between the first shot and the last. Van Dyke testified he recalled firing only “two or three” rounds.
The jury in the end found much of his testimony not believable.
The sole African-American juror, a woman, said he should have never taken the stand.
“He messed up,” she said.
Contributing: Nader Issa, Matt Hendrickson, Frank Main, Ashlee Rezin