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Everything You Need to Know About the Historic Van Dyke Trial and Conviction

By Featured, News

Illustration by Catherine Cao.

Jason Van Dyke, the Chicago Police officer charged with murdering 17-year-old black teenager Laquan McDonald, has been found guilty on almost all counts. Here is everything you need to know about the trial that led to this decision.

The Charges  

Jason Van Dyke, A Chicago Police officer, was charged with six counts of first-degree murder, 16 counts of aggravated battery and one count of official misconduct. These charges coincided with the release of a dashcam video from October 20, 2014 showing Van Dyke shooting 17-year-old McDonald 16 times. The 16 counts of aggravated battery correspond to each shot Van Dyke fired.

Police alleged that Van Dyke shot McDonald when the teenager lunged forward with a three-inch knife, but the video shows McDonald holding the knife with his arms at his sides walking away from officers before being shot. The police report of the incident also claimed that “McDonald appeared to be attempting to get up all the while continuing to point the knife at Van Dyke,” but the video shows McDonald motionless on the ground after Van Dyke fired the first shot.

Van Dyke is the first Chicago police officer to be charged with first-degree murder since 1980 and, if convicted, he could face a life sentence in prison.

The Prosecution

The prosecution rested just four days after the trial officially began on September 17. In that time, Special Prosecutor Joseph McMahon made the case that Van Dyke was unjustified in shooting McDonald and that his reaction was racially motivated, saying “what he did see was a black boy walking down the street … having the audacity to ignore the police.”

The defense, led by Van Dyke’s attorney Daniel Herbert, denied the racial connection and emphasized McDonald’s “wild rampage through the city” leading up to his run-in with the police, and contrasted Van Dyke as an upstanding citizen who made breakfast for his kids on the morning of the shooting.

Several CPD officers testified over the four days, including Van Dyke’s former partner Officer Joseph Walsh. Walsh testified that McDonald had held up a knife and attempted to attack Van Dyke, though the dashcam video did not show McDonald making this gesture. Walsh also suggested that McDonald still posed a threat even after falling to the ground, and alleged that McDonald would not have been killed if he had dropped the knife when ordered to do so.

Walsh is currently facing criminal charges for attempting to cover up the shooting, but his testimony in this trial was granted immunity so long as what he said was truthful.

Herbert emphasized that Van Dyke had fired many of his 16 total shots before realizing that McDonald had fallen, saying that an officer can fire five or six shots within a second. McMahon told the jury that McDonald fell to the ground within 1.6 seconds of being shot, but that Van Dyke continued shooting for 12.5 more seconds, emptying all ammunition in his gun.

McMahon added that Van Dyke attempted to reload his gun and only stopped once his partner told him to. Herbert attempted to prohibit the prosecution from mentioning this detail, but the motion was denied by Judge Vincent Gaughan.

Two CPD officers on the scene, Joseph McEllingott and Dora Fontaine, testified that they did not fear for their lives. McEllingott drew his gun on McDonald but did not fire, saying that he was “trying to buy time to have a Taser.” A Taser unit did arrive less than a minute after McDonald was shot.  

Cook County’s chief medical examiner walked the jury through a graphic visualization of McDonald’s autopsy, including over 20 images and describing in detail all 24 of McDonald’s entry and exit wounds. He also confirmed that all 16 bullets hit McDonald.

The prosecution rested after expert witness Urey Patrick told the jury that Van Dyke was not justified in shooting McDonald at all. Patrick, a former FBI agent, had a test shooter fire 16 shots in 14 seconds from a distance of 10 ½ feet to mimic Van Dyke’s shooting pattern. Patrick said that in general, police officers will continue shooting for a second or a second and a half before realizing that a threat is incapacitated. Since Van Dyke continued shooting for 12.5 more seconds after McDonald fell, Patrick claimed that Van Dyke’s actions were “deliberate” and “methodical.”

Jose Torres was the last witness on day four of the trial. Torres and his son Xavier, who had testified earlier that week, witnessed the shooting from their car. Torres told the jury that he heard more gunshots after McDonald fell than while he was standing, and remembers thinking aloud, “Why the f are they still shooting him when he was on the ground?”

After the prosecution rested, Herbert asked Judge Vincent Gaughan to throw out the charges made against Van Dyke, saying that the prosecution had failed to prove Van Dyke’s intent to kill. This request is a standard move that is rarely approved, and the judge quickly denied Herbert.

The Defense

On September 24, the first day of the defense’s case was met with protests in front of the courthouse, with demonstrators chanting “from the slave capture to the KKK to the killer cops of today, convict Van Dyke and throw him in jail. The whole damn system is guilty as hell.”

Over the course of the case’s seven-day span, the defense team called six witnesses from the Cook County juvenile detention center to the stand to testify to Laquan McDonald’s troubled past. Authorities from this center testified that McDonald was physically aggressive toward them during encounters in 2013 and 2014, but that the teenager never hurt any of the staff. The prosecution emphasized during cross examination that Van Dyke would not have known any of this prior to shooting McDonald on October 20, 2014.

Pathologist Dr. Shaku Teas testified that the fatal shot that ultimately killed McDonald was a shot to the chest, and suggested that the majority of the shots hit McDonald before he fell. This contradicts the dashcam video that shows McDonald falling to the ground within two seconds of being shot.

The defense emphasized the possibility that an earlier shot was the one that killed McDonald, which would suggest that the rest of Van Dyke’s shots were inconsequential to the case. This would contradict the earlier testimony of Van Dyke’s former partner Joseph Walsh, who claimed that Van Dyke had to keep shooting after McDonald fell because the teenager still posed a threat.

The defense also played an animation of the shooting from Van Dyke’s perspective. The four-minute-long video was made by Jason Fries, the defense’s forensic video expert. It begins with recorded audio from 9-1-1 callers, different police units, and police dispatch played over an aerial street view of the location of the shooting. The video then switches to an overhead view of the shooting from the same perspective as the dashcam video, but with a counter on the top of the screen that shows McDonald closing the gap between himself and Van Dyke from 34 feet to 13 feet in a matter of seconds. The video then displays the same scene in aerial view, and finally an over-the-shoulder view of the shooting from Van Dyke’s perspective and showing McDonald walking past with a knife in his hand.

During cross examination, prosecutor Marilyn Hite Ross pointed out that the video did not show Van Dyke shooting all 16 shots and claimed that McDonald was portrayed as much larger than Van Dyke in certain parts of the video.

The woman who initially called 9-1-1 on Laquan McDonald testified that she called the police on him as a precaution after he asked her if he could borrow her car. She thought this was an an odd request since she had never met him before, and called 9-1-1. She said she never felt frighted, adding that “he seemed like a nice guy.”

Retired Chicago police firearms instructor Nicholas Pappas testified that Van Dyke was taught to shoot until a threat was eliminated, emphasizing the idea that Van Dyke was following his training when he shot McDonald. Pappas said that officers are taught that knives are a deadly weapon and can pierce a bulletproof vest. During cross examination, prosecutors pointed out that Van Dyke may have ignored other aspects of his training that night, such as failing to “reassess” the situation once he initially shot McDonald and the teenager had collapsed on the ground.

A police use of force expert also attempted to reinforce the validity of Van Dyke’s behavior by showing how quickly an assailant with a knife can close the distance of 13 feet. Barry Bodd rushed at Daniel Herbert with a toy knife and pretended to stab the defense attorney while yelling “Stab! Stab!”

On October 2, Jason Van Dyke took the stand in his own defense. Through tears he described his encounter with McDonald before shooting the teenager, saying that McDonald “looked right through me” and “his face was just expressionless.”

Van Dyke emphasized that he continued shooting McDonald because he thought the teenager was attempting to get back up with the knife in his hand. He also re-stated that McDonald had waved the knife in an upward diagonal motion from his lower right side to his left shoulder.

The prosecution called attention to the dash cam video, asking Van Dyke where on the video McDonald performed this gesture. Van Dyke suggested that the video didn’t show his perspective and that even the animation created by the defense did not portray the incident accurately.

The jury was told that before the shooting Van Dyke had questioned why the two other police officers hadn’t shot McDonald after the teenager had popped their tires and scratched the windshield of their police cruiser. Van Dyke had also made a comment to his then-partner Joseph Walsh on the way to the shooting that “we are going to have to shoot the guy.”

The Verdict

The closing arguments of the defense and prosecution presented two different interpretations of Van Dyke’s behavior. The prosecution urged the jury to focus on the dashcam video and questioned the credibility of much of the police testimony, including that of Van Dyke’s former partner Joseph Walsh. Lead prosecutor Joseph McMahon also suggested that Van Dyke had options that he chose not to utilize that night.

The defense said it was “unprecedented” for an officer to stand trial for doing his job. Van Dyke’s lead defense attorney Daniel Herbert suggested that the “tragedy” of Laquan McDonald’s death could have been avoided if the teenager had dropped the knife. Herbert emphasized this point by dropping a knife onto the courtroom floor.

While the trial spanned three weeks, the jury only deliberated for about 7 1/2 hours before delivering their verdict. The jury found Jason Van Dyke guilty of second-degree murder and all 16 counts of aggravated battery, each count read aloud and corresponding to the 16 shots Van Dyke fired. The jury did not find Van Dyke guilty of official misconduct.

A second-degree murder charge can mean as little as probation or as much as 20 years of jail time. Aggravated battery carries a minimum sentence of 6 years and can go up to 30 years. It is unclear whether Judge Gaughan will have Van Dyke serve his 16 counts of aggravated battery consecutively, or allow him to lump them together.

The crowd waiting outside the Leighton Criminal Courthouse erupted in cheers when the verdict was read aloud. Demonstrators marched through the city, shutting down the intersection of Ohio Street and Michigan Avenue and chanting “16 shots and a cover up, guilty!”

Jason Van Dyke is the first Chicago Police Officer in 50 years to be found guilty of a murder charge during an on-duty shooting. Lead defense attorney Daniel Herbert says he plans to appeal Van Dyke’s conviction. Three other CPD officers, including Van Dyke’s former partner Joseph Walsh, face criminal charges for covering up the truth about the shooting.

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