Former Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke was sentenced to 81 months in prison for the murder of Laquan McDonald in 2014, Judge Vincent Gaughan ruled Friday evening.
Van Dyke may become eligible for release within three years and four months, reporters in the courtroom wrote on Twitter, based on how the state calculates “good time” credit on this particular category of crime.
The decision comes more than four years after Van Dyke killed McDonald and more than two years after courts and reporters forced the city of Chicago to release video of the killing it had sought to keep secret. The video showed that McDonald had not lunged at Van Dyke, as officers and city officials claimed for years to explain why he had not faced discipline or criminal charge.
Members of McDonald’s family expressed mixed disappointment and relief in an impromptu press conference at the courthouse shortly after the verdict, with the slain teen’s great-uncle Rev. Marvin Hunter saying that “even a second” of jail time for Van Dyke was in some ways a victory.
“I know people are angry, but we have a lot to rejoice about,” Hunter said. He went on to say he hopes his niece, McDonald’s mother, “is happy at some form of justice unlike a lot of families in Ferguson and Minnesota… and across this country that have never gotten justice.”
“I hope that she can see that although it is a small victory, it is a victory,” he said.
Jurors found Van Dyke guilty of second-degree murder in October, a verdict that means they determined prosecutors had proven all components of first degree murder but that there were sufficient mitigating factors in the case to justify a lesser penalty.
Gaughan faced a similar hinge decision under the law: whether to sentence Van Dyke for second-degree murder, which could have meant he received only probation or as much as 20 years, or to instead apply the counterintuitvely more serious Illinois criminal code that applies to the bodily-harm charges of which Van Dyke was also convicted. The maximum sentence in the latter instance, technically speaking, would have been 96 years. That outcome was never truly in play, however, as prosecutors made a detailed argument for their preferred 18-to-20 year range.
Van Dyke will also face two further years of parole after completing his initial incarceration. It was unclear at press time how the days he has already been held pending trial after his bond was revoked might count toward the 81-month sentence Gaughan issued or the minimum three-year term the former officer faces.
In a direct final allocution statement before sentence was issued — something reporters had not been positive Van Dyke would choose to deliver here — the ex-cop quietly expressed sorrow, sympathy, and defiance alike.
“I have prayed daily for the soul of Laquan McDonald,” Van Dyke said, reading from a single sheet of paper. “It is due to my actions that the McDonald family has suffered this loss and pain.” But he also said that “no one knows” how it felt to be “scared to death for myself and my fellow officers” that night.
The McDonald family elders’ effort to dig deep for a sanguine reaction after the brief sentence, and Hunter’s call for calm, did not carry the day with everyone present at the microphones.
“We’re very fucking angry. Six and a half years is a fucking joke,” a younger man who did not give his name said on camera. “Y’all motherfuckers are clowning here. Six and a half years for fucking murder?… Y’all should be fucking rioting right now.”
But other prominent faces of the years-long movement for accountability in McDonald’s murder made a different call. Though the brief sentence was “a slap in the face,” according to prominent activist William Calloway, who was intimately involved in the court case that eventually forced the crucial video to be released, the fact Van Dyke will spend time in prison despite the city fathers’ best efforts to sweep things under the rug should teach black Chicagoans they have power.
“We forced [former prosecutor] Anita Alvarez out. We forced [former police commissioner] Gerry McCarthy out,” Calloway said, before urging everyone in the city to push forward for further change. City-wide elections will be held on February 25, as Calloway forcefully reminded everyone the day before, after Van Dyke’s colleagues were acquitted on charges they’d intentionally covered up his actions.
McDonald was surrounded by numerous other police officers at the moment Van Dyke fired. His supporters repeatedly emphasized in Friday’s sentencing hearing that it was the only time in his nearly two-decade career that he ever fired his gun while on duty. McDonald’s mourners, by contrast, emphasized Van Dyke’s history of civilian complaints and pointed most of all to the video showing Van Dyke decided to hop out of his car and opened fire within seconds, despite every other officer present adopting a wait-and-see approach while they waited for someone with a taser to arrive.
After the sentencing, Hunter took care to remind the assembled reporters that McDonald was more complicated than both the defense attorneys and the news media had portrayed the slain teen.
“As our family got together to discuss what should be said in this victim impact statement, we started to talk about the things that were dear to Laquan,” Hunter said, referring to a statement he’d made in court earlier in the day. “He wanted to be able to be in this house with his mother… to be a nuclear family. The media tried so hard to portray him as a cracked out, PCP, no family that loved him, and that was not the truth.That is not the truth.”
This is a breaking news story and will be updated.