Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke is supposed to be the one on trial for first-degree murder.
But even his defense attorney seemed to have a hard time keeping that straight.
Twice during his closing argument, Dan Herbert mistakenly referred to his client as Laquan McDonald, the teenager Van Dyke shot 16 times in 2014.
Those slips epitomized the defense strategy during the three-week trial.
It wasn’t Van Dyke who had to answer for fatally shooting the 17-year-old McDonald, even though other officers on the scene did not use deadly force.
It was McDonald who was the “author” and “choreographer” of his own death, in a hail of gunfire, according to the defense.
During closing arguments, Herbert did his best to dehumanize the troubled teenager to explain why Van Dyke was “justified” in fatally shooting McDonald as he appeared to be walking away from the police officer on the dashcam video that captured the horrific shooting.
McDonald wasn’t just a teen armed with a knife.
He was a “monster” according to Herbert.
“Think about a monster movie when the victim is hiding in the bush . . . there is not much danger. But when that monster suddenly stops and turns and looks right at the victim in the bush, that is when the music starts to play,” Herbert said, painting the teen as a predator.
Even more offensive was Herbert’s admission that the police shooting would probably be judged not justified had Van Dyke fatally shot a Boy Scout armed with a knife.
“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, but it’s not,” Herbert argued.
That cuts to the heart of the distrust people of color have about policing in their communities. Van Dyke didn’t know what drugs McDonald had in his system that night.
Yet Van Dyke confronted the teenager like he was dealing with a wild animal that had to be put down on the spot.
“We never lost eye contact. Eyes were bugging out, his face was just expressionless,” Van Dyke testified earlier this week.
“He turned his torso towards me . . . He waved the knife from his lower right side upwards across his body towards my left shoulder,” the officer testified, explaining why he shot McDonald.
First of all, I’ve not seen anyone with his or her eyes “bugging” out, but Van Dyke’s description fits one of the most insulting, anti-black images.
It is clear that in Van Dyke’s eyes, McDonald was dangerous and had to be stopped.
But no video, including the animated version of the deadly encounter presented by the defense, showed McDonald threatening any of the police officers with a knife.
I believe Van Dyke went gangbusters and overreacted, but it’s up to the jury to decide his fate.
As jurors get on with the hard work of deliberation, I hope they remember who is on trial.