The first Chicago police officer charged with an on-duty murder in over three decades has tried to argue that he feared for his life when he shot a black teenager 16 times. Now, the country will find out whether a jury believes him.
Dashcam video showing the fatal shooting of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald on a Chicago street one night in October 2014 — and the alleged cover-up — gripped the city, catalyzed the removal of the police superintendent, and inflamed police-community relations, which led to widespread protests. The white officer, Jason Van Dyke, now faces six counts of first degree murder, 16 counts of aggravated battery with a firearm, and one count of official misconduct.
Both his defense and prosecutors began their closing arguments Thursday. If convicted on all charges, Van Dyke could spend the rest of his life in prison.
Dashcam video released 13 months after the shooting showed Van Dyke, a 14-year veteran of the force, shooting McDonald as he walked away with a small knife in his hand. Van Dyke continued to shoot after the teen had fallen to the ground. In total, the officer fired 16 shots, all of which struck McDonald, according to the autopsy.
“This case is a tragedy but not a murder,” said defense lawyer Daniel Herbert in closing arguments on Thursday. “It’s a tragedy that could have been prevented with one simple step.”
“Had Laquan McDonald dropped that knife, he’d be here today,” he added after a dramatic pause.
Assistant Special Prosecutor Jody Gleason, however, implored the jury to take a critical eye to Van Dyke’s version of events.
“From the very beginning of this case, the defendant in this case has exaggerated the threat, and he continues to exaggerate it,” Gleason said. “No one is above the law.”
Van Dyke’s testimony
Under Illinois state law, an officer can use deadly force on a suspect if they reasonably believe themselves or someone else to be at risk of death or bodily harm — or if they think that force is necessary to prevent a fleeing suspect who has committed or attempted to commit a felony that involves the use of a deadly weapon.
And that’s exactly what Van Dyke has tried to argue.
The dashcam video, which state prosecutors relied on heavily to make their case, was taken from behind McDonald and the side of Van Dyke. The angle shows McDonald walking away and then veering away when Van Dyke opened fire.
But Van Dyke said the video — and the animated recreation used by prosecutors — doesn’t tell the full story.
“It’s not showing what I saw,” Van Dyke testified, according to the Chicago Tribune. “It’s showing the back of my head and above me.”
Lawyers representing Van Dyke also made their own animation that aligns with the officer’s version of events, which shows McDonald turn toward him and raise his knife from about 10 feet away.
Prosecutors said that 13 of the 16 bullets were fired after McDonald had crumpled to the ground. But Van Dyke explained that he continued to shoot the teen, even when he was on the ground, because he still posed a threat.
“I could see him starting to push up with his left hand off the ground,” Van Dyke said, according to the Tribune. “And I see his left shoulder start to come up, and I still see him holding that knife with his right hand not letting go of it. And his eyes are still bugged out. His face has got no expression on it.”
Another Chicago police officer, William Schield, testified earlier in the trial on behalf of the defense that he once warned his colleagues, Van Dyke included, about civilians carrying guns disguised as knives, known as “knife guns.” During cross-examination, however, Schield admitted neither he nor any of his fellow officers had ever encountered such a weapon.
Schield‘s testimony intended to bolster Van Dyke’s argument that he reasonably feared for his life when he decided to shoot McDonald.
Another Chicago officer, who arrived on the scene before Van Dyke on that night of 2014, told jurors that she initially thought McDonald could have a gun. Her testimony in this case was designed to show that McDonald seemed threatening to the officers who responded to the scene.
The 16 shots
Police officers are trained to empty their clips until the suspect or target stops. In Van Dyke’s case, all 16 of his shots struck McDonald. That number became a rallying cry among activists calling for justice.
Pathologists called to the stand, however, disagreed about the order of the gunshot wounds and when the 17-year-old died.
Prosecutors argued that McDonald died at the hospital. But former Cook County Medical Examiner Shaku Teas testified on behalf of the defense that the first bullet fired by Van Dyke killed McDonald after tearing through the teenager’s chest and severing his pulmonary artery.
If true, that means the other 15 bullets were irrelevant. Even though McDonald was still breathing and had a pulse when paramedics arrived on the scene, Teas said that he was in “the process of dying,” according to the Chicago Sun Times.
The timing is crucial to the case because Van Dyke’s lawyers need to prove that he acted within the bounds of Illinois’ police use of deadly force statute. If, as prosecutors argue, Van Dyke continued to shoot McDonald while he was still alive but no longer posed a threat, then jurors could conclude that he acted outside of the state's deadly force law.
The Chicago Police Department is already preparing for protests in the event that Van Dyke walks free. Superintendent Eddie Johnson said, if necessary, he’ll cancel planned days off for the 13,000-strong department and extend eight-and-a-half-hour shifts to 12 hours starting Thursday. He also said that officers will wear their regular uniforms, rather than military or riot gear, unless absolutely necessary.
Cover image: Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke testifies on Tuesday, Oct. 2, 2018, during his first degree murder trial for the shooting death of Laquan McDonald at the Leighton Criminal Court Building in Chicago. (Antonio Perez/ Chicago Tribune via AP, Pool)