Almost four years to the day after a Chicago police officer decided to shoot Laquan McDonald 16 times, the murdered teen’s family and friends finally got closure Friday when a jury found Jason Van Dyke guilty of murder.
It took about 24 hours for jurors to reach the unanimous decision that Van Dyke’s actions that night constituted second-degree murder. He is just the 34th police officer to be convicted of homicide in an on-duty killing since the beginning of 2005, according to figures kept by Bowling Green State University professor Phil Stinson. Almost 60 other officers have been acquitted, won a mistrial, or remain in legal limbo on similar charges from the same period of time, with tens of thousands of other police killings never coming close to a criminal courtroom.
The guilty verdicts — for Van Dyke was also convicted on 16 of the 17 other charges he faced — will be a massive relief to Chicago officialdom. City leaders had braced for mass unrest should the case have gone the other way, as the slow saga of McDonald’s killing offered a single focal point for widespread suspicion and anger toward the city’s notoriously abusive police force.
Van Dyke’s supporters in the law enforcement community and among more well-to-do white Chicagoans were predictably outraged by the decision.
“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,” state Fraternal Order of Police head Chris Southwood said, in a statement that dipped into the common FOP tactic of threatening to withdraw police protection from civilians in retaliation for misconduct accountability. “What cop would still want to be proactive fighting crime after this disgusting charade,” Southwood went on, “and are law abiding citizens ready to pay the price?”
Defense attorneys tried a variety of theatrical maneuvers to dissuade jurors from relying on the notorious video showing the swiftness and brutality of Van Dyke’s actions. Insisting that video amounted to no more than “the last two minutes of the movie,” lead attorney Dan Herbert asserted that the full context of McDonald’s pedestrian tear across town that night meant that Van Dyke was within his rights to break from the consensus among the other nine officers present that gunfire wasn’t necessary yet.
He admitted the tire of a police car that McDonald had popped with his knife into evidence. He held up the knife and dropped it to the floor with a clatter during his closing argument, to illustrate the only action he argued could have actually saved McDonald’s life.
He spent hours walking jurors through an animated recreation of events from the night that purported to better capture what Van Dyke would have seen from his location (though not even the animation supported the notion that McDonald had somehow managed to menace officers physically in a way not captured in the dashcam video).
He likened McDonald to the villain in “a monster movie,” arguing that his defiance, hostility, and glare all amounted to behavior that officers are trained to treat as potentially deadly threat. He repeatedly tried to misrepresent the so-called “21-foot rule,” an old-wive’s maxim of security services training named for the distance a suspect with a knife can supposedly close faster than a cop can fire. (That’s not actually the lesson intended by the Utah law enforcement training expert who invented the “rule” – he urges officers to have their weapons drawn and aimed inside of that distance because of the time it takes to draw from the holster, but pointedly rejects the misinterpretation of his teaching that holds officers are always entitled to shoot at a knife-wielder inside that range.)
But jurors’ final analysis wasn’t swayed by Herbert’s impassioned portrayal of Van Dyke as a sympathetic guy who did what was necessary when faced with a “monster.” Though fellow officers tried to aid Van Dyke’s cause in their own testimony about the night, each acknowledged they had not deemed it necessary to shoot themselves. Radio runs made clear that Van Dyke knew officers with a taser had been called to the scene, even if he didn’t know how close they were to the scene. Multiple video angles and police officer testimonies made clear that he had eschewed less-lethal options of his own, including trying to knock McDonald down with his car or using the vehicle to box the teenager in and await further help.
It will be days or weeks before Van Dyke’s final sentence is decided.The second-degree murder conviction could let Van Dyke out on probation immediately or produce a sentence of 4 to 20 years, and each count of aggravated battery adds at least 6 further years. The lesser conviction could mean Van Dyke, now 40, is out on parole well before he hits retirement age, although it’s unlikely he could obtain a law enforcement certification in Illinois or elsewhere after being convicted of a violent felony.