CHICAGO – A white Chicago officer was convicted of second-degree murder Friday in the 2014 shooting of a black teenager that was captured on shocking dashcam video that showed him crumpling to the ground in a hail of 16 bullets as he walked away from police.
The video, some of the most graphic police footage to emerge in years, stoked outrage nationwide and put the nation’s third-largest city at the center of the debate about police misconduct and use of force. The shooting also led to a federal inquiry and calls to reform the Chicago Police Department.
Jason Van Dyke, 40, was the first Chicago officer to be charged with murder for an on-duty shooting in about 50 years. He was taken into custody moments after the verdict was read.
The second-degree verdict reflected the jury’s finding that Van Dyke believed his life was in danger but that the belief was unreasonable. The jury also had the option of first degree-murder, which required finding that the shooting was unnecessary and unreasonable. A first-degree conviction, with enhancements for the use of a gun, would have carried a mandatory minimum of 45 years.
Second-degree murder usually carries a sentence of less than 20 years, especially for someone with no criminal history. Probation is also an option. Van Dyke was also convicted of 16 counts of aggravated battery – one for each bullet.
One legal expert predicted that Van Dyke will be sentenced to no more than six years total. But because he’s an officer, it will be “hard time,” possibly spent in isolation, said Steve Greenberg, who has defended clients at more than 100 murder trials.
The teen, Laquan McDonald, was carrying a knife when Van Dyke fired at him on a dimly lit street where he was surrounded by other officers.
One of Chicago’s leading civil rights attorneys said the conviction sends a message to minority communities that the police reforms that began after the video became public were not just for show.
Andrew Stroth said an acquittal would have sent the opposite message, dashing hopes for change.
“I think Chicago would have erupted,” he said.
Defense attorney Dan Herbert called Van Dyke “a sacrificial lamb” offered by political and community leaders “to save themselves.” He said it was a “sad day for law enforcement” because the verdict tells officers they cannot do their jobs.
“Police officers are going to become security guards,” he said.
A McDonald family spokesman thanked prosecutors for pursuing a case that, he said, many black attorneys did not believe could be won.
“I can’t rejoice because this man is going to jail,” said McDonald’s uncle, the Rev. Marvin Hunter. “I saw his wife and father. His wife and daughter didn’t pull the trigger. I could see the pain in these people. It bothered me that they couldn’t see the pain in us.”
The verdict was the latest chapter in a story that accelerated soon after a judge ordered the release of the video in November 2015.
The 12-person jury included just one African-American member, although blacks make up one-third of Chicago’s population. The jury also had seven whites, three Hispanics and one Asian-American.
Jurors said they spent much of their deliberations discussing whether to convict on first-degree or second-degree murder, not an acquittal. They said Van Dyke’s testimony did not help him. One woman said he “messed up” and should not have testified.
The jurors’ names were not made public during the trial and were not disclosed Friday during interviews with reporters at the courthouse.
One said Van Dyke needed to “contain the situation, not escalate it.” He said the jury settled on second-degree murder because Van Dyke believed he was experiencing a real threat.
On the night of the shooting, officers were waiting for someone with a stun gun to use on the teenager when Van Dyke arrived, according to testimony and video. The video, played repeatedly at trial, showed him firing even after the 17-year-old lay motionless on the pavement.
Prosecutors and defense attorneys clashed over what the footage actually proved.
During closing arguments, prosecutor Jody Gleason noted that Van Dyke told detectives that McDonald raised the knife and that McDonald tried to get up off the ground after being shot.
“None of that happened,” she said. “You’ve seen it on video. He made it up.”
But Van Dyke and his attorneys maintained that the video did not tell the whole story.
His attorneys portrayed the officer as being scared by the young man who he knew had already punctured a tire of a squad car with the knife. Van Dyke testified that the teen was advancing on him and ignoring his shouted orders to drop the knife.
Van Dyke conceded that he stepped toward McDonald and not away from the teen, as Van Dyke had initially claimed. But the officer maintained the rest of his account.
“The video doesn’t show my perspective,” he said.
The officer had been on the force for 13 years. In that time, he was the subject of at least 20 citizen complaints – eight of which alleged excessive force, according to a database that includes reports from 2002 to 2008 and 2011 until 2015.
Though he was never disciplined, a jury did award $350,000 to a man who filed an excessive-force lawsuit against him. Van Dyke testified that McDonald was the first person he ever shot.
To boost their contention that McDonald was dangerous, defense attorneys built a case against the teenager, who had been a ward of the state for most of his life and wound up in juvenile detention after an arrest for marijuana possession. They also pointed to an autopsy that showed he had the hallucinogen PCP in his system.
Prosecutors stressed that Van Dyke was the only officer ever to fire a shot at McDonald.
They called multiple officers who were there that night as they sought to chip away at the “blue wall of silence” long associated with the city’s police force and other law enforcement agencies across the country. Three officers, including Van Dyke’s partner that night have been charged with conspiring to cover up and lie about what happened to protect Van Dyke. They have all pleaded not guilty.
Even before the trial, the case affected law enforcement in Chicago. The city’s police superintendent and the county’s top prosecutor both lost their jobs – one fired by the mayor and the other ousted by voters. It also led to a Justice Department investigation that found a “pervasive cover-up culture” and prompted plans for far-reaching police reforms.
A week before jury selection, Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced he would not seek a third term, although his office insisted the case had nothing to do with his decision. He faced criticism that he fought the release of the video until after his re-election in April 2015.
Ahead of the verdict, the city prepared for the possibility of the kind of massive protests that followed the release of the video in November 2015, with an extra 4,000 officers being put on the streets.
The issue of race permeated the case, though it was rarely raised at trial. One of the only instances was during opening statements, when special prosecutor Joseph McMahon told the jurors that Van Dyke didn’t know anything about McDonald’s past when he encountered him that night.
“What we do know, what he (Van Dyke) did see, was a black boy walking down the street … having the audacity to ignore the police,” McMahon said.
Herbert countered, “Race had absolutely nothing to do with this.”
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