A Chicago police officer has been convicted of murder after shooting a teenager in 2014.
The officer, Jason Van Dyke, was found guilty of second-degree murder and 16 counts of aggravated battery with a firearm. Each count represented one of the 16 bullets Van Dyke, who is white, fired at Laquan McDonald, a black teenager, on a Chicago street the night of Oct. 20, 2014.
Jurors deliberated for about seven and a half hours before reaching their verdict. Van Dyke was found not guilty on one of the charges: a count of official misconduct.
Anger over the shooting has roiled Chicago since the police department released dash-cam video showing Officer Van Dyke riddling McDonald with bullets — even after the teen had crumpled to the ground.
Van Dyke, a 14-year veteran of the force, had initially been charged with first-degree murder, but prosecutors left open the option for the jury to return with a finding of second-degree murder. Unlike first-degree murder, a second-degree murder conviction does not come with a mandatory prison sentence, though Van Dyke could still face somewhere from 4 to 20 years in prison. According to the Chicago Tribune, offenders in Illinois convicted of second-degree murder usually serve half their sentence.
Aggravated battery with a firearm carries a minimum sentence of 6 years and a maximum of 30 years.
Ahead of the verdict, Judge Vincent Gaughan warned the courtroom that any outbursts would result in arrests. At prosecutors’ request, the judge revoked Van Dyke's bond, and he was taken into custody pending sentencing.
Van Dyke, who took the risky step of testifying on his own behalf, maintained he had reason to fear for his life, and argued that the dash-cam video didn’t show the whole picture of what happened. Under Illinois law, officers can shoot to kill if they believe that their life, or someone else’s, is at risk.
Jurors considered the alternative verdict of second-degree murder at the defense’s request.
Murder charges for police who shoot and kill civilians are rare — the last time an officer was charged with murder in Chicago was 1970 — and convictions are even rarer. Only 96 sworn law enforcement officers have been charged with murder or manslaughter from an on-duty shooting since the beginning of 2005, according to data compiled by Phil Stinson, a criminologist at Bowling Green State University and an expert in police misconduct. To date, only 33 of those 96 officers were convicted. And just about half — 17, to be exact — were convicted by a jury. The rest pleaded guilty.
“In the cases where an officer has been convicted, it is often for a lesser offense,” Stinson told VICE News. According to his data, only two officers have been convicted of murder, which is the most serious offense. Other convictions have been for crimes like manslaughter, reckless homicide, and involuntary manslaughter — all of which are lesser charges that carry lighter sentences.
Protesters outside the courtroom cheered and chanted, “Justice for Laquan.”
Activists had promised widespread protests if Van Dyke was acquitted, chanting outside the courthouse, “If they free the killer cop, the city must stop.” Chicago Police Department have been preparing for the worst: Superintendent Eddie Johnson said earlier in the week that he was prepared to cancel days off and extend eight-and-a-half-hour shifts to 12 hours for the 13,000-strong department. He also said officers would wear their regular uniforms rather than military or riot gear, unless absolutely necessary.
Cover image: Chicago police Officer Jason Van Dyke watches the prosecution's closing statements during his first-degree murder trial for the shooting death of Laquan McDonald at the Leighton Criminal Court Building on Thursday, Oct. 4, 2018, in Chicago. (Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune via AP, Pool)