Jurors reached a verdict Friday in the trial of a white Chicago police officer charged with murder in the shooting of black teenager Laquan McDonald.
The verdict will be announced at 1:45 p.m. CDT.
Officer Jason Van Dyke is charged with first-degree murder, aggravated battery and official misconduct. The judge told jurors just before they withdrew to begin deliberating that they will have the option of convicting the officer of the lesser charge of second-degree murder. First-degree murder carries a maximum sentence of life. If convicted of second-degree murder, Van Dyke could face 15 years or more in prison, but probation is also an option with that charge.
During closing arguments Thursday, prosecutor Jody Gleason pointed to dashcam video of Van Dyke shooting McDonald 16 times as the teenager held a knife at his side. 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.
“None of that happened,” she said. “You’ve seen it on video. He made it up.”
But Van Dyke’s attorney, Dan Herbert, said the video, the centerpiece of the prosecutor’s case, doesn’t tell the whole story and is “essentially meaningless based on the testimony” jurors heard. He pointed to testimony from Van Dyke’s partner that night, Joseph Walsh, who said he saw McDonald raise the knife, even though the video doesn’t show that. Van Dyke made similar claims on the witness stand as he told jurors that he was afraid for his life and acted according to his training.
“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 Oct. 20, 2014, shooting to protect Van Dyke. Jurors were told only that Walsh was testifying under “use immunity,” meaning his testimony can’t be used against him as long as he was truthful, but were never told about the allegations he faces.
Police encountered McDonald after a 911 call reported someone breaking into vehicles. As Van Dyke arrived, police had the 17-year-old mostly surrounded on a city street. An officer with a Taser was just 25 seconds away.
Gleason seized on the testimony of one the defense’s own witnesses, a psychologist who interviewed Van Dyke. Dr. Laurence Miller said that when Van Dyke heard on his radio that McDonald had a knife and had punctured the tire of a squad car, he told his partner: “Oh my God, we’re going to have to shoot the guy.”
Gleason said Van Dyke had made up his mind about what he’d do before even arriving at the scene.
“Laquan McDonald was never going to walk home that night,” she said.
Gleason told jurors that while police officers are allowed to use deadly force in some circumstances, this was not one of them.
“They do not have the right to use deadly force just because you will not bow to their authority,” she said. “This is not the Wild West out here … where an officer can shoot an individual … and try to justify it later.”
The jury, which deliberated for about seven hours total on Thursday and Friday, is comprised of eight men and four women. Seven are white, three are Hispanic, one is Asian-American and one is African-American.
Two alternate jurors — a man and a woman — told reporters after being dismissed by the judge that they would have found Van Dyke guilty in the shooting. The man said he thought Van Dyke “should have waited a little bit longer.” The woman said other officers had encountered McDonald that night and “they didn’t feel the need to use deadly force.”
Three other alternates were not dismissed.
One of the last images prosecutors showed jurors was an autopsy photo of McDonald’s body. Gleason noted bullet entry and exit holes.
“Laquan’s body was riddled, broken and bleeding,” she said. She added: “He even had bullet fragments in his teeth.”
Herbert argued that McDonald was to blame for what happened that night, saying “the tragedy … could have been prevented by one simple step.” Herbert then dramatically took the knife that was entered into evidence earlier and dropped it on the floor in front of the jury box. Van Dyke testified that he repeatedly asked the teen to drop the knife.
Herbert also reminded jurors that a prosecutor briefly mentioned the issue of race during opening statements but never broached the issue again.
“Did you see any evidence that race had anything to do with this case?” he said. “When you don’t have evidence, you use argument.”
As jurors began deliberating, the Chicago Police Department canceled days off and put officers on 12-hour shifts. An extra 4,000 officers will be on the street, according to spokesman Anthony Guglielmi. The city saw protests after video of the shooting was released in November 2015, and activists have been planning how they might react to a verdict.
The verdict will be the latest chapter in a story that has led to the police superintendent and the county’s top prosecutor both losing their jobs — one fired by the mayor and the other ousted by voters. It also led to a U.S. Justice Department investigation that found a “pervasive cover-up culture” and prompted plans for far-reaching police reforms.
SOURCE: DON BABWIN and MICHAEL TARM
The Associated Press