How they got to guilty — Van Dyke jurors explain their decision to convict
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When Jason Van Dyke climbed onto the witness stand Tuesday to explain why he killed Laquan McDonald, he needed to win over the dozen men and women chosen to decide his fate in a historic verdict.
Three days later, that jury of eight women and four men found Van Dyke guilty of second-degree murder and 16 counts of aggravated battery. And then, speaking to reporters, they repeatedly said Van Dyke’s testimony looked “rehearsed.”
One woman, the lone black juror, put it bluntly — “he messed up.”
“His testimony wasn’t credible to me,” she said. “I felt like he was trying to remember stuff that he said that maybe wasn’t true. And he wanted to make sure he didn’t trip himself up.”
Several jurors who decided one of the most closely watched trials in Chicago history spoke out Friday to explain what happened during their seven hours of deliberations and how they got to guilty. They did not divulge their names.
They defended their decision as a “good verdict.” And they pointed out the key factors that helped them reach their conclusion.
Among them were the comments Van Dyke made to his partner before he even laid eyes on McDonald on Oct. 20, 2014. When he learned that McDonald had used his knife to stab the tire of a police vehicle and slash at its windshield, Van Dyke remarked, “why didn’t they shoot him if he’s attacking them?”
And when the officers pulled within two blocks of McDonald, Van Dyke said, “Oh my God, we’re going to have to shoot the guy.”
Those comments were first revealed Tuesday — moments before Van Dyke took the witness stand — through a witness called by Van Dyke’s defense team.
“I think there was a pause,” one of the alternate jurors said as she recalled the testimony, prompting fellow jurors to nod in agreement. “I think we all wrote down notes on that one. And I think that was kind of a changing point.”
Then, during closing arguments Thursday, defense attorney Dan Herbert made a remark that stuck with the black woman on the jury.
“If Laquan McDonald did not appear to be some kid whacked out on PCP, acting really bizarrely, if this was a kid in a Boy Scout uniform just walking down the street with a knife, and Jason Van Dyke shot him, yeah, it probably wouldn’t be justified,” Herbert said.
The black juror said she “didn’t feel that was appropriate.”
“We are past all of that,” she said. “We didn’t come here because of race. We came here for right and wrong. That’s all.”
Criminal charges may never have been filed against Van Dyke had it not been for the infamous dashcam video of McDonald’s shooting, publicly released in November 2015. One juror acknowledged they watched it “many, many, many times.”
The jury was made up of four white women, three white men, three Latina females, the black woman and an Asian man. One of the Latina women is applying to be a Chicago police officer. Another has family ties to Cook County Judge Vincent Gaughan.
On Friday, one of the males jurors said, “we’re actually a very diverse group — economically, socially. We’re from all parts of Cook County. And we’ve learned to appreciate each other.”
The jurors said they made no decision until Friday. One juror said they kicked off deliberations by taking a blind vote to find their baseline. Seven jurors voted to find Van Dyke guilty during that first vote. Two voted not guilty, and three were undecided.
Another juror said they “had a little problem at first” trying to decide whether to convict Van Dyke of first-degree murder or the lesser charge of second-degree murder.
But yet another juror insisted they “listened to each other, we respected what each other said, when somebody was questioning something we let them ask their questions.”
Ultimately, one juror said he decided Van Dyke “needed to contain the situation.”
And when asked about testimony about McDonald’s troubled past, another juror said, “even though you’re not an innocent person, you don’t deserve to die. You don’t deserve something like that.”
One juror said they decided to acquit Van Dyke of official misconduct because “we felt he had the right to carry the weapon, and he had the right to use his weapon because he’s a police officer.”
Serving on a jury can be grueling. It requires sacrifice — from the jurors and members of their family. Van Dyke’s trial was especially demanding. Jurors were sequestered Thursday night.
But they called their service a “privilege.” One said she felt like they were “hostages but VIPs at the same time.” Another said, “I wasn’t sleeping for three weeks.” And still another said that, the night they were sequestered, she “kind of felt like president in a way” because of “how many cars were following us out.” She said it made her realize “this is real.”
Others recalled riding public transportation and seeing fellow commuters reading about the trial.
“There are all these people, and I’m doing this work and nobody knows it,” one man said. “It felt really amazing.”