Four years after shooting 17-year-old Laquan McDonald 16 times, Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke has been found guilty of second-degree murder.
The announcement came on Friday, the second day of jury deliberations and one day after the conclusion of Van Dyke’s trial. In addition to the second-degree murder conviction, Van Dyke was found guilty on 16 counts of aggravated battery with a firearm and not guilty of one count of official misconduct. He had been charged with two counts of first-degree murder, 16 counts of aggravated battery, and one count of official misconduct. The second-degree murder charge was added shortly before the jury entered deliberations.
Van Dyke’s bond was revoked after the ruling and he was immediately taken into custody. He is the first Chicago officer convicted of murder for an on-duty shooting in nearly 50 years, according to the New York Times.
On October 20, 2014, Chicago police approached McDonald after getting reports of someone breaking into vehicles in a trucking yard. As the teen walked away from officers, a group slowly began to follow him and were waiting for a Taser unit to arrive.
Police said that McDonald was armed with a knife, and reported that he “popped” the tire of a police cruiser. When Van Dyke arrived on the scene after hearing initial dispatches, he opened fire within seconds, completely emptying his service weapon. Van Dyke later said that McDonald had failed to comply with demands to drop the knife and had made a threatening move toward police.
More than a year later, after a string of lawsuits and a judge’s order to release dash-cam footage of the shooting, city officials released video showing that McDonald appeared to be moving away from police when he was shot, contradicting Van Dyke’s account. The officer was charged with first-degree murder in November 2015.
Chicago has waited for Van Dyke’s verdict with bated breath
The McDonald shooting became a flashpoint in Chicago, calling national attention to a decades-old divide between the city’s police force and its black and brown residents and sparking waves of protests. It fueled a damning Justice Department investigation into the Chicago Police Department, a new consent decree aimed at reforming the department, and a wave of political changes in the city.
Van Dyke’s trial, which began in September and concluded on Thursday, was the first time in more than three decades that a Chicago police officer has faced murder charges. Van Dyke’s decision to opt for a jury trial was seen as highly unusual given that other officers charged in police shooting cases have opted for bench trials. The city had been bracing for the verdict, with local community members promising to protest if the officer were acquitted.
During the recent trial, the prosecution argued that Van Dyke unnecessarily shot McDonald, noting that no other officer on the scene used deadly force. The defense said that Van Dyke feared for his life and that McDonald posed a serious threat.
On Tuesday, Van Dyke took to the stand in his own defense, telling the courtroom that he believed that McDonald was “advancing” and had raised the knife toward him. “We never lost eye contact, his eyes were bugging out, his face was just expressionless,” Van Dyke said.
The prosecution disputed this account, noting that video of the shooting did not show McDonald raising his arm. The prosecution also challenged Van Dyke’s justification for shooting McDonald so many times, noting that the video did not show the teen attempting to get up from the ground as the officer had claimed.
Van Dyke’s conviction stands out among other police shooting cases in recent years. It is rare for officers to be tried for a shooting and rarer still for them to be convicted. On Thursday evening, two alternate jurors released from duty noted that they would have found Van Dyke guilty if they had a say in the matter, pointing to the fact that he fired 16 times.
“It made a difference to me,” a dismissed female juror told reporters on Thursday. “I don’t know what else you could call that except for excessive force.”