The lawyer for a white Chicago police officer charged with murdering a black teenager said on Wednesday his client feared for his life, and that footage from a patrol car camera released this week is unreliable because the video "distorts images."
The lawyer, Daniel Herbert, told CNN that on October 20, 2014, Officer Jason Van Dyke arrived on a street on the southwest side of Chicago 18 minutes after a suspect carrying a knife was reported to have threatened businesses and vandalized police cruisers.
That suspect, Laquan McDonald, was gunned down by Van Dyke, who fired 16 bullets at him -- the first as he was moving away from police, 15 more as he lay on the pavement motionless. The killing, which was captured on dashcam video, sparked mass protests through the streets of Chicago after it was released Tuesday.
In the graphic dashcam video, released hours after Van Dyke was charged with murder, McDonald can be seen striding down the median strip of a four-lane highway. He careens diagonally, trying to evade police who jump out of their patrol car. Van Dyke then opens fire at McDonald within seconds and keeps shooting him after he hits the ground. The teen's body jerks from the force of the bullets.
But the officer's attorney said Wednesday the footage was not an indicator of his client's guilt.
"Video by its nature is two-dimensional. It distorts images. So what appears to be clear on a video sometimes is not always that clear," Herbert said. He said Van Dyke "truly was in fear for his life as well as the lives of his fellow police officers."On Tuesday, some demonstrators seized on the graphic footage, chanting "16 shots," repeatedly as they surrounded a group of patrol vehicles on the city's West Side. Others rallied outside Chicago police headquarters. Hundreds also marched to chants of "You don't get to kill us and tell us how to feel. You don't get to shoot us and tell us how to heal," an apparent reference to Mayor Rahm Emanuel's appeal to calm earlier Tuesday.
The latest video showing a police shooting of a black person has reignited Black Lives Matter protests towards the end of a year already been marked by a long series of fatalities, and of demonstrations that have at times broken out in riots. McDonald joins a group of black American men and women, including Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner and Sandra Bland, who have become the public faces of a battle for police accountability and calls to end bias, brutality, and fatal use of force across the country.
That it took a year investigators a year to wrap up their probe into McDonald's death and for prosecutors to level a murder charge at Van Dyke signals mixed progress for criminal justice reform activists. Van Dyke is the first Chicago police officer charged with murder for an on-duty incident in decades, but simmering tensions over the 13 months it took to charge the officer and refusal to release the video prevail.
One protester, Monique Winegard, 33, told Reuters that while the charge against the officer was "a good start… we've clearly reached the point where something needs to change."
Chicago's Mayor, Rahm Emanuel also acknowledged that the city was at a crossroads, and that Chicagoans will "have to make an important judgment about our city and ourselves and go forward."
Chicago officials are now calling for peace, while bracing for more protests over the Thanksgiving holiday. Groups of demonstrators have called activists to stage rallies outside a number of venues, including City Hall, and at one of the city's busiest shopping districts, on Michigan Avenue.
Meanwhile, Cook County's chief prosecutor Anita Alvarez admitted her decision to release the footage a day before a court-set deadline was intended to assuage any violence that may have been anticipated in the public's reaction to the tape, which had already been leaked to a local television station.
"With release of this video it's really important for public safety that the citizens of Chicago know that this officer is being held responsible for his actions," she said.
The officer remains in prison after being denied bail and is facing 20 years to life if convicted for murder. Over the course of his career, Van Dyke has received at least 18 civilian complaints against him, including for misconduct and excessive use of force. The city paid out more than $500,000 to settle the complaints.