The threat of losing a job protecting people’s rights, persons, and property through force is identical — in courtroom terms — to the threat of having one’s back beaten off with a spiked belt.
At least, that’s what Chicago cop Jason Van Dyke’s lawyers argued Wednesday in a hearing ahead of his trial for murder in the death of Laquan McDonald.
Van Dyke’s attorney was arguing that two statements his client gave days after the killing cannot be shown to jurors. One of these private, candid explanations of his decision to empty a clip into the teenager who was walking away from him that night was given to a senior police official directly. The other was an interview — which Van Dyke’s own lawyer characterized Wednesday as “his confession,” according to Chicago Tribune crime reporter Megan Crepeau — with Chicago’s civilian oversight Independent Police Review Authority (IPRA).
Each contradict what Van Dyke told police union officials at the scene of the killing. Those initial statements on the street, which union and department cops used that night and for months after to cover up the truth of McDonald’s death, have already been ruled admissible in the murder trial. Van Dyke, union officials, and CPD press officers all in turn lied that McDonald had lunged at officers. The video shows him walking away from them as Van Dyke, who’d arrived at the heavily-policed scene just seconds earlier, fires on his retreating body 16 times.
Van Dyke has ample legal precedent on his side in suppressing the IPRA and internal brass confessions from his trial. Each statement was made under the threat of termination if he did not cooperate. Such compulsory internal testimony has generally been held inadmissible in future criminal cases. One judge has already ordered them sealed in Van Dyke’s case.
Yet the cop’s lawyer apparently decided he needed something spicier to argue. He turned to an old case called Brown vs Mississippi, which involves a group of former slaves who were convicted of murder:
Pause whatever initial tickle of rage you feel at the simple comparison here. The detail of the thing is worse.
The Chicago Police Department itself tortured false confessions out of dozens, if not hundreds, of black men and women throughout the 1970s and 1980s. It turned a large swathe of black Chicago over to a cop named Jon Burge and his self-described “midnight crew” of uniformed public servants. Burge’s crimes were only recently settled in civil court — and police families are already objecting to a settlement condition adding Burge to local school curricula.
For over two decades, Burge’s gang would grab up somebody they thought fit the bill for a given crime, take them somewhere private, and beat them until they stopped insisting on their innocence. These confessions were then used to imprison the torture victims — sometimes, as in Stanley Wrice’s case, to rot for more than a quarter of a century for crimes they didn’t commit.
The Mississippi hellions with badges who Jason Van Dyke’s lawyer wants a judge to think back on today followed the same playbook a few decades before Burge’s reign of terror began.
When a white landowner in Kemper County was found dead on a Friday afternoon in 1934, a sheriff’s deputy grabbed up nearby sharecropper Arthur Ellington. The deputy and a crowd of white man gathered at the deceased’s home proceeded to non-fatally lynch Ellington — ritualistically stringing him up and taking him back down, then tying him to a tree and whipping him for having the insolence to still deny he’d killed the man.
The next day, cops grabbed up Ellington again, along with fellow sharecroppers Ed Brown and Henry Shields, and took them to the nearby jail. There, the three “were laid over chairs and their backs were cut to pieces with a leather strap with buckles on it,” according to the summary of the case found in then-Chief Justice Hughes’ Supreme Court opinion vacating their convictions. The three black men “were likewise made by the said deputy definitely to understand that the whipping would be continued unless and until they confessed, and not only confessed, but confessed in every matter of detail as demanded by those present,” Hughes summarized further.
This, then, is the form of compulsory confession to which Van Dyke’s lawyer wishes to compare, “legally speaking,” his client’s statements to peers and oversight board members in the 21st century. Though the attorney took time to say he didn’t mean to compare Van Dyke to a former slave, according to the Tribune’s Megan Crepeau, he did mean to say that Van Dyke’s confession was every bit as compelled when it comes to the law.
Whether or not Van Dyke’s “confession” is somehow admitted despite the ample legal precedent that the statements themselves cannot be shown to jurors, the ex cop stands a pretty good chance of getting off. Police are rarely charged, and even more rarely convicted, in even the most dubious of on-duty killings. Both the law and American society defer to their decisionmaking.
McDonald’s family has already been compensated financially by the city. A few days after Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s most recent re-election, the city approved a multi-million-dollar settlement to pre-empt a wrongful death suit in the case.
It would take months more for Van Dyke to be charged — even though staff in Emanuel’s office sent emails indicating they had been aware for months of video contradicting the official narrative he and police officials had clung to in the immediate aftermath of Van Dyke’s decision to kill the teen.