Chicago, IL – Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke has been convicted of second-degree murder in the death of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald.
The jury also found Officer Van Dyke guilty of 16 counts of aggravated battery.
The jury found the officer not guilty of a single count of official misconduct.
On October 20, 2014, at approximately 9:45 p.m., Chicago police responded to a report of a teenager breaking into vehicles in the 4000-block of South Karlov Avenue, Fraternal Order of Police Spokesman Pat Camden told WLS at the time.
The teen, later identified as McDonald, slashed the front passenger tire of a patrol SUV, damaged the vehicle’s windshield, and took off on foot, police said.
Officers intercepted the armed suspect in the 4100-block of South Pulaski Road and ordered him to drop the knife, but he refused.
According to the Chicago Tribune, police said McDonald was under the influence of PCP at the time of the incident.
During the trial, Officer Van Dyke’s attorney, Dan Herbert, said that the incident was “a tragedy that could have been prevented with one simple step,” the Chicago Tribune reported.
Herbert then dropped the knife McDonald had been carrying that night onto the courtroom floor.
“At any point throughout that 20-something minute rampage, had Laquan McDonald dropped the knife, he’d be here today,” Herbert declared.
During the trial, Chicago Police Officer Joseph McElligott testified that he had followed McDonald on foot for several blocks prior to the fatal shooting, and said he did not feel that his life was ever in danger, the Chicago Tribune reported.
“We were trying to buy time to have a Taser,” Officer McElligott said. “We were just trying to be patient.”
Dashcam footage showed McDonald as he jogged down the middle of the roadway towards a police cruiser.
He then walked around the first patrol car and veered into the traffic lane, as officers moved towards his left side, the video showed.
During the trial, Officer Van Dyke’s partner, Officer Joseph Walsh, reenacted how McDonald swung the three-inch blade behind his back and up to shoulder-height just before he was shot, the Chicago Tribune reported.
The dashcam video also did not show how events unfolded from Officer Van Dyke’s perspective, and should not be the only piece of evidence utilized to understand what occurred, his attorney noted.
But Officer Walsh was in close proximity to Officer Van Dyke during the incident, and testified that McDonald posed a risk to their safety and that they had a reason to be afraid, the Chicago Tribune reported.
“At 9:57:36, McDonald has crossed over the white lane divider away from the officers, and Officer Van Dyke has taken at least one step towards McDonald with his weapon drawn,” Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez said in November of 2015, after Officer Van Dyke was charged with first-degree murder, according to WLS.
“[Officer Van Dyke] then opened fire on Laquan, whose arm jerks, his body spins around and he falls to the ground,” Alvarez said. “While Laquan is falling to the ground the defendant takes at least one more step towards him.”
At that point, the patrol car where the dashcam was mounted moved to the right, cutting Officer Van Dyke out of the frame.
“Two seconds later, Laquan McDonald is lying on the street on his right side, and the video captures what appears to be two puffs of smoke coming from the ground near his body,” Alvarez said, according to WLS. “These puffs of smoke were later identified as clouds of debris caused by the fired bullets.”
“At 9:57:51, McDonald is still lying on the street and the last visible shot is fired,” she said.
According to prosecutors, Officer Van Dyke was beginning to load another magazine into his duty weapon – as he was trained to do – when his partner told him to cease fire.
The second officer then walked toward McDonald, and kicked his knife out of reach.
An autopsy revealed that McDonald was shot in the back of his arms, his right leg, and multiple times in the chest, WLS reported.
He was shot 16 times, according to the Chicago Tribune.
“Of the eight officers on the scene, it was only the defendant who fired his weapon,” Alvarez said. “[Officer Van Dyke acted] without legal justification and with the intent to kill or do great bodily harm” when he fired the fatal rounds.
Herbert argued that his client was forced to make a “split-second” decision in a dangerous, fluid situation.
“The judgement made by individuals that view this tape from the comfort of their living room on their sofa, it’s not the same standard as the perspective from my client,” Herbert told WLS. “People viewing this video tape will have the brilliance and benefits of hindsight, 20/20 vision.”
“However, the standard in this case is: what was my client experiencing at the time at which he made this split-second decision to fire, and that is the standard that is going to be utilized,” Herbert explained. “And thankfully that will be the standard that will be utilized in court, and we fully anticipate that we will be successful in this case.”
During the trial, prosecutors argued that Officer Van Dyke responded to the scene with the intent of murdering McDonald.
“We are going to have to shoot the guy,” he told Officer Walsh as they traveled to the scene, according to the Chicago Tribune.
“Laquan McDonald was never going to walk home that night. The defendant decided that on the way to the scene,” assistant special prosecutor Jody Gleason declared during closing arguments.
Prosecutors argued that Officer Van Dyke should have used less-lethal means to stop the armed teen, and said he could have waited for another officer to arrive with a Taser or used his vehicle to gently tap him, the Chicago Tribune reported.
In April of 2015, the Chicago City Council awarded a $5 million settlement to McDonald’s family, the Associated Press reported.
McDonald was on probation and was a ward of the state at the time of his death, according to WLS.
His mother was just 15 years old when he was born, and had been taken into protective custody due to her own caregiver’s drug addiction, the Chicago Tribune reported.
He was abused and neglected as he was shuffled between homes during the first five years of his life, then went to live with his great-grandmother, according to the news outlet.
McDonald began using and selling drugs, started running with gangs, and was in and out of juvenile lockups for most of his life.
Protests erupted after the release of the dashcam footage, and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel ultimately fired Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy over how the case was handled, the Associated Press reported.
“We are abolitionist in our politics,” Assata’s Daughter’s founder Page May told The New York Times in 2016. “We are fighting for a world in which the police are obsolete.”
In December of 2015, Emanuel apologized for McDonald’s death, and declared that the Chicago Police Department needed “complete and total reform.”
Just days later, a grand jury indicted Officer Van Dyke on six counts of first-degree murder and a single count of official misconduct. In March of 2017, the grand jury added 16 counts of aggravated battery with a firearm to the litany of charges against him.
“This is a false narrative done by people that are trying to confuse fact with their own opinion,” Officer Van Dyke said in a FOX News interview on Aug. 30, just a week before his murder trial began. “Anybody who knows me knows that I’m not a racist.”
“I’m extremely nervous, petrified at the fact that I may be going to prison for the rest of my life for an act that I was trained to do by the Chicago Police Department,” the 15-year veteran of the department said.
“I never wanted to. Nobody wants to fire their gun,” Officer Van Dyke said. “Taking a person’s life is not something I take lightly at all… I never would have done this if I didn’t think my life or somebody else’s life was in danger.”
“It’s never going to leave my mind,” he said.
Officer Van Dyke said his family has received death threats in the wake of the shooting, and that his daughters, ages 12 and 16, have been “ridiculed” and “targeted” by their peers at school, FOX News reported.
Going into the trial, Officer Van Dyke said he hoped the jury would base their decision on evidence, as opposed to public opinion.
In addition to the charges against Officer Van Dyke, prosecutors have also filed charges against Officer Walsh and two other members of the Chicago Police Department, accusing them of having lied in reports in order to exaggerate the risk McDonald posed on the night of the shooting, the Chicago Tribune reported.
Officer Walsh, Officer Thomas Gaffney, and former Detective David March have all been charged with obstruction of justice, official misconduct, and conspiracy.
According to court documents, the three officers provided “virtually identical false information” regarding the incident.