CHICAGO – Prosecutors on Monday asked Illinois’ highest court to review what they consider to be a too lenient sentence for the white Chicago police officer who fatally shot black teenager Laquan McDonald.
Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul and the special prosecutor who won a murder conviction against former officer Jason Van Dyke, Kane County State’s Attorney Joseph McMahon, said they believe Cook County Judge Vincent Gaughan improperly applied the law last month when he sentenced Van Dyke to six years and nine months in prison. In a rare move, Raoul and McMahon filed a request with the Illinois Supreme Court seeking an order that would send the case back to Gaughan for a new sentence.
“This is the first step in asking the court to declare that the trial court improperly sentenced Jason Van Dye for the murder and aggravated battery of Laquan McDonald and to order a new sentencing hearing,” Attorney General Kwame Raoul said at a news conference.
Monday’s court filing was the latest chapter in an ongoing saga that has included massive demonstrations, the firing of the police superintendent by the mayor and the ouster of the county’s top prosecutors by voters a few months later. Dashcam video of the shooting released by the city in 2015 showed Van Dyke continued to fire after the 17-year-old McDonald fell to the ground. The sentence was the first imposed on a Chicago police officer for an on-duty shooting in a half century.
It followed a jury’s decision in October to convict the officer of second-degree murder and 16 counts of aggravated battery – one count for each bullet fired into McDonald.
Van Dyke’s attorneys did not immediately respond to requests for comment Monday but planned to hold a media availability later in the day.
A central issue is an Illinois law that allows a judge to sentence a person for only the most serious crime when he is convicted of multiple crimes for what amounts to a single act. Gaughan determined that second-degree murder was the more serious crime, even though it carries a lighter sentence than aggravated battery – between four and 20 years in prison versus six to 30 years in prison.
Many legal experts say Gaughan was wrong and have pointed to a 2004 Illinois Supreme Court ruling in which a majority of justices concluded that aggravated battery is the more serious charge because it has a higher sentence.
McMahon had sought a sentence of between 18 and 20 years. In his legal arguments, he said Gaughan could have sentenced Van Dyke to 96 years in prison if he found that all 16 bullets caused “serious bodily injury.” The defense sought probation.
Prosecutors cannot directly appeal a sentence but are seeking what is called a writ of mandamus, which can result in an order from the Illinois Supreme Court telling a judge to adhere to the correct law.
“This is the only way for us to challenge the legality of a sentence,” McMahon told reporters Monday.
Absent a new sentence and with credit for good behavior, Van Dyke will likely serve only approximately three years.
In one of his first moves after taking office in January, Raoul announced he would review the sentence Gaughan had handed down just days earlier.
Raoul bristled when asked Monday whether politics played a role in his decision, as was suggested by one of Van Dyke’s attorneys when Raoul announced he was evaluating the case.
“This is not a political question,” he said. “This is a question of law.”
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