Chicago police Officer Jason Van Dyke was convicted Friday of second-degree murder in the death of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald, marking a stunning end to a racially tinged case that roiled the city when now-infamous police dashboard camera video of the shooting was released three years ago by court order.
Van Dyke is the first Chicago police officer in half a century to be found guilty of murder for an on-duty shooting. He faces a minimum of six years in prison when he is sentenced by Judge Vincent Gaughan.
The veteran officer also was convicted of all 16 counts of aggravated battery for each shot he fired at McDonald. The jury acquitted him, however, of a single count of official misconduct.
Around the city, a smattering of protesters gathered in public places to watch the verdict unfold. More than two dozen protesters formed a tight circle outside the LaSalle Street entrance to City Hall with their heads leaning in to listen to a livestream of the verdict on a cellphone.
Some covered their mouths and others braced anxiously with their hands resting on their head. A whisper rose among the hushed group, “I’m scared. I’m scared for my city, y’all.”
After several minutes, the crowd rejoiced in enthusiastic cheers after the first conviction was announced. Others like Kenna Carson, an organizer and resident of Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood, broke into tears and doubled over with emotion.
“It just felt like all those years of work from the time the video came out was worth it,” Carson said. “Like all the organizing and being out in the streets, it was worth it. It was worth it — for once.
The verdict comes after a landmark trial that featured testimony over 10 days by 44 witnesses, 24 called by the prosecution and 20 by the defense.
The three-week trial flipped the script of most murder cases at the Leighton Criminal Court Building, with prosecutors questioning the credibility of police officers who typically serve as their most trusted witnesses.
Van Dyke himself broke from normal protocol for police officers facing charges of wrongdoing, opting to have a jury decide his fate instead of asking the judge to weigh the evidence in a bench trial. His decision to testify in his own defense also was rare for a building where most criminal defendants — especially those charged with murder — invoke their right to remain silent.
The charges against Van Dyke centered on the dashcam video depicting the moments leading up to the shooting on Oct. 20, 2014 — footage that has been played around the world for nearly three years. The graphic images sparked protests and political upheaval and led to a sprawling federal civil rights probe into the systemic mistreatment of citizens by Chicago police, particularly in the city’s minority communities.
The case has long been racially fraught because Van Dyke is white and McDonald was black. Prosecutors wasted no time making that an issue at trial even though the charges did not specifically allege that race was a factor.
In his opening statement, special prosecutor Joseph McMahon said Van Dyke knew virtually nothing about McDonald before he fired except he “was a black boy walking down the street … having the audacity to ignore the police.”
Van Dyke’s attorneys, meanwhile, said the case had nothing to do with race, arguing that the shooting was a clear-cut case of self-defense against an out-of-control, violent teen who was high on PCP and ignoring police commands.
In his closing argument, Herbert chastised prosecutors for trying to insert race into the case.
“When you don’t have evidence, you use argument,” Herbert said.
Later in his argument, however, Herbert made two references that suggested McDonald’s appearance did play a role in the shooting.
“If Laquan McDonald did not appear to be some kid whacked out on PCP acting really bizarrely, if this was a kid in a Boy Scout uniform just walking down the street with a knife, and Jason Van Dyke shot him, yeah, it probably wouldn’t be justified,” Herbert said at one point.
He also likened McDonald to a monster in a horror movie with Van Dyke playing the role of the monster’s prey hiding in the bushes.
“When that monster suddenly stops and turns and looks right at that victim in the bush, I think I said that’s when the music starts to play,” Herbert said. “That’s when the filmmakers are like, ‘OK, I got ’em right now.’”
Throughout the trial, prosecutors highlighted how other officers involved in the incident seemed to be operating with restraint, content to let McDonald walk away while they waited for backup cops with a Taser to arrive at the scene. One officer, in fact, trailed McDonald on foot for about half a mile over several blocks, never threatening to shoot. Van Dyke, however, opened fire just six seconds after stepping out of his squad car with his gun drawn. The car with the Taser arrived at the scene 20 seconds after he stopped shooting.
Five of Van Dyke’s fellow Chicago police officers testified for the prosecution, including Joseph Walsh, his partner that night who was granted immunity from prosecution while awaiting trial on criminal charges alleging he helped cover up details of the killing to make it appear justified.
The jury heard from dueling forensic pathologists who came to very different conclusions about McDonald’s death as well as two police use-of-force experts who disagreed on whether Van Dyke was justified in opening fire.