Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke Found Guilty in the Murder of Laquan McDonald

Jurors have found Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke guilty in the second-degree murder of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald. He was also found guilty of all 16 counts of aggravated battery, but acquitted of official misconduct.

The state, led by Special Prosecutor Joseph McMahon, argued the defendant stepped way over the line by opening fire at the victim 16 times on the night of October 20, 2014. The defense team headed by Dan Herbert countered, saying that McDonald was acting belligerent and violent that night. Van Dyke credibly believed that he and others were in danger at the time of the incident.

“Laquan McDonald was never going to walk home that night,” McMahon said in closing arguments. “The defendant confided that on the way to the scene. You heard what it was he said: ‘I guess we’ll have to shoot him.’ It wasn’t the knife in Laquan’s hand that made him kill him that night. It was his indifference to the value of Laquan’s live.”

Both sides agreed that McDonald had a knife on him and had taken PCP. The debate was over whether Van Dyke’s decision to shoot constituted first-degree murder. The jury was given the option to consider second-degree murder.

To find Van Dyke guilty of first-degree murder, jurors had to agree that he was responsible for McDonald’s death. Second, they must determine that Van Dyke intended to kill or do great bodily harm to the victim, or knew that such acts would cause death, or knew that such acts created a strong possibility of death or great bodily harm to McDonald. Third, the defendant must be found to have used unjustified force. It would have resulted in acquittal if any of these elements weren’t proved beyond a reasonable doubt.

According to the instructions obtained by Law&Crime, if jurors found Van Dyke guilty of first-degree murder, they would have to then decide whether there were mitigating factors rendering this second-degree murder. In this case, that means jurors agreed that he believed that circumstances justified deadly force, but the belief that those circumstances existed was unreasonable. The defense needed to prove this mitigating factor by a preponderance of the evidence, an easier standard to meet than reasonable doubt.

The charge of second-degree murder carries a sentence varying from probation to 20 years in prison.

Dash-cam footage of the incident was released in 2015, and sparked protests. Be warned: It’s graphic.

This footage heightened an ongoing national debate on the brutalization of people of color, especially black men, by police. McDonald was African-American. Van Dyke is white.

“It was not necessary to kill him,” McMahon said in opening statements. But Herbert said that evidence showed McDonald was on a “wild rampage” in the time leading up to the shooting. The prosecution acknowledged the victim’s alleged behavior–popping a squad car tire, and striking a windshield–but added that officers that night had other methods to confront him. For example, there were dispatch called for a unit with a taser. They argued that 16 shots was unnecessary in dealing with McDonald.

The defense argued that the number of bullets was typical in how law enforcement was trained to shoot. Most shots were fired by the time McDonald hit the ground, Herbert said. He downplayed racial elements of the case, and said there’s no evidence his client open fire because of race.

Van Dyke testified that he shot because he believed he was going to be attacked. McDonald raised the knife, and moved it in his direction, he said on the stand.

“We never lost eye contact,” Van Dyke testified. “His eyes were just bugging out.”

He fired another set of shots because he thought McDonald was getting back up,” he said.

Under cross-examination, the prosecution pressed him on statements he made shortly after the shooting. For example, he told a detective and a doctor that he “backpedaled” during the shooting, but the video contradicted this. Van Dyke was actually moving toward McDonald before opening fire. The prosecutor pressed him on his claim that he wanted to shoot the knife, not McDonald.

“You’re not trained to shoot at a knife, are you?” the prosecutor asked.

“No,” said Van Dyke.

“You’re trained to shoot at center mass?” the prosecutor said.

“Yes.”

“Why would you shoot at his knife? That’s not what you’re trained to do.”

“My focus was on that knife,” he said. “I just wanted him to get rid of that knife. That’s all I could think.”

On the stand, the defendant also pointed out that the dash cam video recorded McDonald from the back. It did not capture the full range of his hand movements.

Chris Southwood, president of the Illinois Fraternal Order of Police, criticized the ruling Friday.

“This is a day I never thought I’d see in America, where 12 ordinary citizens were duped into saving the asses of self-serving politicians at the expense of a dedicated public servant,” he said in a statement obtained by Law&Crime. “This sham trial and shameful verdict is a message to every law enforcement officer in America that it’s not the perpetrator in front of you that you need to worry about, it’s the political operatives stabbing you in the back. What cop would still want to be proactive fighting crime after this disgusting charade, and are law abiding citizens ready to pay the price?”

It’s unlikely scrutiny of the incident will die down, whatever verdict the jury gave. On Thursday, a Chicago judge unsealed a document in connection to an ongoing case in which three cops allegedly tried to cover up for Van Dyke.

“We should be applauding him [Van Dyke], not second guessing him,” a detective wrote in an email quoted in the document, according to The Chicago Sun-Times.

[Screengrab via Law&Crime Network]

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