Man vs. video
But things finally got down to where they belonged in court on Tuesday: The white cop on the witness stand charged with murder, emotional and crying, versus the white cop on the police video, shooting the black teenager armed with a knife 16 times, as the jury and Chicago watched.
Remorse is not evidence, and neither is belief, but whatever it was, it was all over Jason Van Dyke’s face.
He wiped it from his eyes. Then he blew his nose as he tried to maintain control.
Van Dyke explained what he saw that night in October 2014, McDonald walking with the knife, “flicking it out toward his side.”
“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 told the courtroom. “I was yelling at him ‘Drop the knife.’ I was yelling at him I don’t know how many times.”
Van Dyke had to push his chin forward, trying to control his own face. It was as if he were reliving it. He was asked how far away they were from each other.
“He got probably about 10 to 15 feet away from me,” Van Dyke said. “We never lost eye contact.
“(His) eyes were bugging out. His face was just expressionless. He turned his torso towards me. … He waved the knife from his lower right side, upwards across his body towards my left shoulder.”
Van Dyke’s voice started to break.
“I shot him,” he said.
During cross-examination, prosecutors played the video of Van Dyke killing McDonald, firing 16 shots, over, and over again.
Van Dyke said he kept shooting at the knife when the teenager fell. He said McDonald was trying to get up, but that wasn’t remotely observable on the video.
Most of Chicago has seen the police video countless times and most made up their minds upon learning City Hall hid the video from public view until after Emanuel’s last mayoral election in 2015. He’d wear the jacket for any fallout after a verdict, so he’s pulled out of the race. And others who were much too afraid to challenge him are crawling in.
Even before Tuesday’s testimony, there was a buzz at 26th and Cal. People who knew he’d testify gave each other blank but knowing looks that lingered. If you knew, you knew, whether outside on the steps or in the corridors, exchanging knowing looks.
But it’s nothing now. The only thing that matters is what the jury thinks. And then we’ll see what Chicago is all about.
“We’ll have a verdict by the weekend,” said a worried police officer as I walked out to my car. He wasn’t worried about Van Dyke as much as worrying about possible violence if Van Dyke walks “Great. On the weekend. The (deleted) weekend.”
I don’t think he’ll walk away. He’s been charged with murder, but also 16 separate counts of aggravated battery. He’ll go down for something.
But none of us know. Only the jury.
Convicting a police officer for murder while in the performance of duty is difficult. I’ve heard some complain that McDonald was the one put on trial, but that always happens in self-defense cases. And others play the race card, which is obvious and easy.
Watching Van Dyke blow his nose, I kept drifting back to another trial involving police killing a man, and I was certain the verdict would be guilty.
The victim was John Wrana, 95, a World War II veteran who survived the jungles of Burma, but who couldn’t survive what happened in a south suburban nursing home when suburban police took out a shotgun.
The race card wasn’t played. Politicians didn’t seize upon the case. They ran from it. The police killing of John Wrana was not a cause because the political demographics were wrong.
Wrana was an old white man. Park Forest police Officer Craig Taylor, who was charged and later acquitted of felony reckless conduct, is black.
Yet as with McDonald, the defense put Wrana on trial. Police talked as if he were physically terrifying, like a jungle-fighting ninja who might have killed with his shoehorn.
But Wrana was just an old man who needed a walker to stand. Mentally disoriented from a urinary tract infection, he told nursing home staff and police to get the hell out of his room.
Guns drawn, formed up behind a heavy police battle shield, five cops confronted the old man. Taylor shot him four times in the gut at close range with beanbag rounds fired from a shotgun.
Wrana bled out internally at a hospital. The defense argued that the officer simply followed his training. In a bench trial, Cook County Associate Judge Luciano Panici, agreed.
“It is a tragedy whenever there is loss of life that follows a confrontation," Panici said in 2015. "The force used by Craig Taylor was not excessive. There was nothing reckless. There was nothing criminal about his actions."
Taylor walked. But that was a bench trial.
And the Van Dyke case is a jury trial. Belief doesn't matter. My belief or yours is irrelevant. They’ll be the ones to judge the evidence and witnesses. And they'll judge him:
The Van Dyke on the stand, crying, and the other Van Dyke, with the gun, on the video, McDonald twisting and falling to the street.
Whether he truly felt threatened enough to shoot the boy, you don’t shoot 16 times. That’s the bottom line.