Jason Van Dyke, the former Chicago police officer found guilty of shooting a black teenager 16 times as he walked away from him, was sentenced Friday to 6 years, 9 months — far below the 18 year minimum prosecutors sought.
Van Dyke faced up to 96 years in prison for shooting Laquan McDonald on the night of October 20, 2014. McDonald, 17, was armed with a knife when the incident unfolded on a Chicago street after dark.
Lawyers representing Van Dyke argued that the former officer feared for his life when he opened fire on McDonald. But police dashcam footage showed Van Dyke shooting the teenager just as he appeared to be walk away from the officers.
McDonald’s death instantly became a flashpoint for simmering tensions between police and community activists in Chicago. And last November, a jury found the 40-year-old Van Dyke, who is white, guilty of second-degree murder and 16 counts of aggravated battery with a firearm — each count representing the number of the bullets he fired at McDonald.
Cook County Judge Vincent Gaughan had to decide which charges — murder or aggravated battery — Van Dyke would be sentenced on. Defense attorneys were fighting for second-degree murder, which carries a lighter sentence of probation or four to 20 years, compared to the 16 counts of aggravated battery, where each count carries anywhere from six to 30 years.
Van Dyke’s sentence comes in the same week that three members of his former police force were found not guilty on charges linked to allegations that they tried to cover-up the shooting.
Van Dyke’s verdict had been closely watched by activists in Chicago, which has been gripped by the case for years.
Prosecutors and defense attorneys duked it out over the aggravating and mitigating factors of the case, including which of the 16 bullets killed McDonald. Defense attorneys argued that the first shot fired by Van Dyke killed McDonald by tearing through his chest and severing his pulmonary artery, thus rendering the next 15 shots irrelevant — meaning he should be sentenced only for the first bullet. But Prosecutors argued that Van Dyke should be held accountable for each bullet, which he continued firing at McDonald even after the teenager had gone to the ground.
Judge Gaughan ultimately agreed with the defense, ruling that Van Dyke should only be sentenced for second-degree murder, not the 16 counts of aggravated battery that would have resulted in a heftier prison term.
Officers are rarely charged, let alone convicted, of on-duty murder charges. Van Dyke was the third officer convicted of an on-duty murder since 2005, according to Phil Stinson, a criminologist at Bowling Green State University who tracks police crime.
Manslaughter charges, a lesser offense, are a little more common (at least 93 officers officers have been charged since 2005). But overall officers rarely face harsh sentencing when all is said and done: Just 34 officers have been convicted of either manslaughter or murder since 2005, according to Stinson’s research.
Cover: Former Chicago police Officer Jason Van Dyke is escorted into the courtroom for his sentencing hearing at the Leighton Criminal Court Building, Friday, Jan. 18, 2019, in Chicago, for the 2014 shooting of Laquan McDonald. (Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune via AP, Pool)