A jury has found a white Chicago officer guilty of second-degree murder and multiple counts of aggravated battery in the 2014 shooting death of black teenager Laquan McDonald.
The jury began deliberating early Thursday afternoon following closing arguments in the trial of officer Jason Van Dyke. The trial opened September 17 with jurors seeing police video of the fatal encounter.
Van Dyke was charged with first-degree murder, 16 counts of aggravated battery and one count of official misconduct. Jurors had the option of convicting the officer of second-degree murder. He was found guilty second-degree murder, all 16 counts of aggravated battery and not guilty of official misconduct. A judge revoked bail for Van Dyke.
The second-degree murder conviction required a finding that the shooting was unnecessary and unreasonable. The guilty verdict means jurors found Van Dyke believed his life was in danger but that the belief was unreasonable. It’s the first time in half a century that a Chicago police officer has been convicted of murder for an on-duty death.
The shooting and the city’s delay in releasing police footage of it sparked outrage across the city in 2015, with prolonged street protests held everywhere from downtown to smaller neighborhoods.
Before the verdict was read, the judge asked for anyone who thought they may become emotional to leave the courtroom. After the verdict, protesters that had gathered outside the courtroom erupted in cheers, chanting “Justice for Laquan.”
Chicago police had prepared for any possible unrest in the aftermath of the verdict, CBS Chicago reports. The department amped up patrols, many officers have been assigned to 12-hour shifts and supervisors have canceled days off. Tactical officers and special operations units will be heavily armored. Several schools and offices closed early on Friday.
Police encountered McDonald on October 20, 2014, after being called to a report of someone breaking into vehicles. At one point, McDonald punctured a squad car tire with his knife. When Van Dyke arrived, police had McDonald mostly surrounded on a city street and were waiting for an officer to arrive with a Taser to use on the 17-year-old.
During closing arguments, prosecutor Jody Gleason pointed to video of Van Dyke shooting McDonald 16 times as the teenager held a knife in his right hand. She noted that Van Dyke told detectives that McDonald raised the knife, that Van Dyke backpedaled, and that McDonald tried to get up off the ground after being shot.
Gleason said, “None of that happened. You’ve seen it on video. He made it up.”
Van Dyke’s attorneys said he was afraid for his life and acted according to his training.
Defense attorney Dan Herbert told the jury Thursday that the video doesn’t tell the whole story and that it’s “essentially meaningless based on the testimony” jurors heard. Herbert specifically pointed to testimony from Van Dyke’s partner that night, Joseph Walsh. Walsh said he saw McDonald raise the knife, even though the video doesn’t show that.
“The video is not enough,” he said. He added: “It shows a perspective, but it’s the wrong perspective.”
Herbert did not note that Walsh is one of three officers charged with conspiring to cover up and lie about the circumstances of the shooting to protect Van Dyke.
Van Dyke took the stand at trial and said in sometimes emotional and sometimes defiant testimony that what he saw did not unfold the way it did on dashcam video.
Van Dyke said he yelled “drop the knife” but McDonald “never stopped” advancing and didn’t drop the knife.
“His face had no expression, his eyes were just bugging out of his head. He had these huge white eyes, just staring right through me,” Van Dyke said.
Appearing to choke back tears, Van Dyke said McDonald got about 10 to 15 feet away from him. He said McDonald waved the knife, and that’s when he shot him. An autopsy shows McDonald had the hallucinogenic drug PCP in his system.
“His back never once turned towards me,” Van Dyke said. “He could have made a decision to turn and walk in the other direction; he could have dropped the knife and ended it right there.”
But prosecutors picked apart his story, asking why Van Dyke didn’t step out of McDonald’s path and pointing out that the video shows Van Dyke actually stepping toward McDonald.
Herbert argued prosecutors didn’t prove one important element he said was required for murder: “He has no intent to kill. The intent is to stop the threat.”