Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke, 40, was convicted of second degree murder in the 2014 shooting death of 17 year old Laquan McDonald. Van Dyke is the first Chicago officer to be charged with murder for an on-duty shooting in about 50 years. Second-degree murder usually carries a sentence of less than 20 years, especially for someone with no criminal history but probation is also an option. Van Dyke was also convicted of 16 counts of aggravated battery — one for each bullet.
The second-degree verdict reflected the jury’s finding that Van Dyke believed his life was in danger but that the belief was unreasonable. The jury also had the option of first degree-murder, which required finding that the shooting was unnecessary and unreasonable. Legal experts say Van Dyke will likely be sentenced to no more than 6 years but that because he is an officer, it will likely be in isolation.
The verdict was the latest chapter in a story that shook Chicago residents soon after a judge ordered the release of the video in November 2015. Protests erupted and continued, demanding accountability for the shooting. The city’s police superintendent and the county’s top prosecutor both lost their jobs — one fired by the mayor and the other ousted by voters. It also led to a Justice Department investigation that found a “pervasive cover-up culture” and prompted plans for far-reaching police reforms.
The city had been preparing for possible demonstrations in a case that already sparked protests with many downtown businesses and City Hall closing early in anticipation of protests. Groups of demonstrators took to the streets for several hours after the verdict, chanting, “The people united will never be defeated,” and “Sixteen shots and a cover up.”
Prosecutors in Van Dyke’s trial called on multiple officers who were there that night in an effort to penetrate the “blue wall of silence” long associated with the city’s police force and other law enforcement agencies across the country. Three officers, including Van Dyke’s partner, have been charged with conspiring to cover up and lie about what happened to protect Van Dyke. They have all pleaded not guilty.
According to testimony, on the night of the shooting, officers were waiting for someone with a stun gun to use on the teenager when Van Dyke arrived. Former Police Officer Joseph Walsh, Van Dyke’s partner the night of the shooting, testified that Van Dyke said to him “Oh my God, we’re going to have to shoot that guy,” before arriving at the scene. Van Dyke was on scene for less than 30 seconds before opening fire and the first shot he fired was 6 seconds after he exited his patrol car.
The first responding officer said that he did not see the need to use force and none of the at least eight other officers on the scene fired their weapons. Video of the shooting shows that Officer Van Dyke was advancing on McDonald, while McDonald was walking away from him when the first shot was fired. McDonald was shot 16 times in 14–15 seconds and 9 of those shots hit his back as he lay on the ground. Toxicology reports later revealed that McDonald had PCP in his blood and urine.
Assistant special prosecutor Jody Gleason told the jury that Van Dyke contemplated shooting McDonald before he even encountered the young man, referring to testimony about what Van Dyke told his partner before arriving at the scene. “It wasn’t the knife in Laquan’s hand that made the defendant kill him that night. It was his indifference to the value of Laquan’s life.” Van Dyke was taken into custody moments after the verdict was read. He is scheduled for a sentencing hearing on October 31.