Yesterday the verdict in the People vs. Jason Van Dyke case was reached. They deliberated for less than a day, and the stakes were high. They still are.
After deliberation, the jurors found police officer Jason Van Dyke guilty of second degree murder of 17-year old Laquan McDonald.
With an entire city watching, convicted murderer Jason Van Dyke was taken into sheriff’s custody Friday and escorted from the courtroom.
And Chicago exhaled.
Businesses closed early and commuters scurried out of downtown, but the feared riots never materialized. Protests, too, remained peaceful.
And inside the courthouse, the special prosecutor who won Van Dyke’s conviction predicted Chicago would heal from the wounds inflicted by the video-recorded shooting death of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald.
Because this case was never about one cop.
Police scandals in Chicago have come and gone. But since the court-ordered release of a police dashboard camera video showing Van Dyke shooting McDonald as he walked down a Southwest Side street holding a knife, the city has faced a political and social reckoning unlike any in recent decades.
Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy was fired. Voters ousted Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez. Mayor Rahm Emanuel opted not to run for re-election.
Three other Chicago police officers have been charged with conspiring to cover up what really happened on Pulaski Road on the night of Oct. 20, 2014, and are slated to go to trial late next month. In addition to that criminal case, the entire Police Department now faces federal oversight following a U.S. Department of Justice investigation into the shooting.
The video galvanized the city’s activist community, many of whom vowed to maintain their momentum following Van Dyke’s conviction.
“The buck stops here,” said activist William Calloway, who was instrumental in the video’s release. “The buck stops in Chicago.”
A Cook County jury convicted Van Dyke of second-degree murder and 16 counts of aggravated battery with a firearm in connection with McDonald’s death. The verdict marked the first time in more than 50 years that a Chicago police officer has been convicted of murder for an on-duty incident.
In reaching their historic decision, jurors relied heavily on the dashcam video that showed Van Dyke, who is white, firing 16 shots at McDonald, a black teen who appeared to be walking away from officers. Though race was not explicitly mentioned during the testimony, some witnesses made subtle references to skin color.
Special prosecutor Joseph McMahon stunned many in his opening statement when he accused Van Dyke of shooting McDonald because he was a “black boy” who had the audacity to ignore the police.
McMahon, the state’s attorney in suburban Kane County who was appointed because of Cook County prosecutors’ conflicts of interest, told reporters after the verdict that he believed it would have been wrong to ignore the long and fractured history between minority communities and the Chicago Police Department.
“None of us looked at this case and did not understand that there is an element of race in this conversation,” he said. “That issue has permeated the relationship between law enforcement and many communities. I think it was important to talk about what was honest here. That’s why I said it.”
Still, McMahon insisted the McDonald shooting and the conversations it started could ultimately help the city heal.
“The verdict marks an opportunity for this city to come together,” he said.
Healing, however, may take some time. Representatives of both the state and local police unions condemned the verdict — with the president of the Illinois Fraternal Order of Police even saying that jurors had been “duped.”
“This is a day I never thought I’d see in America, where 12 ordinary citizens were duped into saving the asses of self-serving politicians at the expense of a dedicated public servant,” President Chris Southwood said in a statement. “What cop would still want to be proactive fighting crime after this disgusting charade, and are law-abiding citizens ready to pay the price?”
But many jurors told reporters that the responsibility felt like a privilege. They described their deliberations as respectful and harmonious
“Every morning I got on the bus and on the train, and I saw hundreds and hundreds of my fellow Chicagoans, and I thought, how did I get on this jury?” one male said. “There are all these people, and I’m doing this work and nobody knows it. It felt really amazing.”
Most jurors agreed to speak with reporters in the courtroom after the hearing, but did not consent to releasing their names. They spoke seated in the jury box with Judge Vincent Gaughan looking on from the bench.
The foreperson, a white woman, said she knew before she was selected for jury service that the case had drawn national and local attention. She had to discipline herself to consider only the evidence at hand rather than her knowledge of the outside circumstances — for example, why certain officers were testifying under immunity from prosecution.
But what really brought home her sense of “profound duty,” she said, was seeing the faces in the courtroom every day.
“I know I wasn’t sleeping for three weeks. I was thinking of it constantly because of its impact,” she said. “Every day we walked in and looked at two families. We saw Jason Van Dyke’s family, and we saw Laquan McDonald’s family. And I couldn’t walk in here without thinking about that every day.”
The case largely boiled down to the dashcam video that depicted the shooting as it unfolded as well as Van Dyke’s testimony in which he tried to defend his actions.
The video, played dozens of times for jurors over the monthlong trial, showed Van Dyke and his partner pulling up to the scene as McDonald walked south in the middle of Pulaski Road, holding a 3-inch folding knife. As their car got to about 20 feet from McDonald, Van Dyke opened the passenger door for a brief moment before his partner, Joseph Walsh, pulled up farther down the street. Both jumped out with their guns drawn.
Six seconds after Van Dyke exited the car, he took a step toward McDonald — closing the distance to about 12 feet as the teen continued to walk at an angle away from him — and opened fire. McDonald spun and fell to the pavement, his body making only small movements as more bullets appeared to strike him.
Van Dyke continued firing for at least 12 seconds while McDonald lay prone in the street, emptying all 16 rounds into his body, prosecutors said.
Van Dyke told the jury that he was forced to make a split-second decision to shoot McDonald because the teen posed a threat and ignored commands to drop the knife.
Jurors found Van Dyke’s testimony rehearsed and unconvincing. Some even questioned whether his tears on the stand were genuine.
"His memory and the facts in evidence didn't line up," said one juror, a white man.
Hours after the conviction, the Chicago Police Board released a statement reminding the public that Van Dyke and four fellow officers still face possible firings.
While Van Dyke’s trial focused on his actions alone, a trial slated for next month could have a much broader sweep — putting the alleged police “code of silence” itself on trial.
Three of Van Dyke’s fellow officers will face trial on charges that they conspired to cover up the circumstances surrounding the shooting.
Walsh, former Detective David March and Officer Thomas Gaffney all “submitted virtually identical false information” that exaggerated the threat posed by McDonald, according to a recently unsealed court filing from the special prosecutors handling their case. All three are charged with obstruction of justice, official misconduct and conspiracy.
And they “failed to conduct a thorough and accurate investigation” in an attempt to cover up what really happened the night McDonald was shot, the filing said.
The case goes deeper than false police reports, prosecutors allege. Officials also provided incorrect information to the Cook County medical examiner’s office, the Illinois State Police and in emails to one another. On the night of the shooting, detectives allegedly watched the dashcam video with Van Dyke at the area headquarters, even though Van Dyke had yet to be interviewed by investigators for the Independent Police Review Authority, the city agency that then investigated police shootings.
One unnamed sergeant sent an email to a lieutenant saying Van Dyke “did exactly what he was trained to do. We should be applauding him, not second guessing him,” according to the filing.
In a news conference after Van Dyke’s conviction, Kevin Graham, president of the union that represents Chicago’s rank-and-file police officers, said he spoke Friday to dozens of officers — all of whom still stood behind Van Dyke.
“They were all wishing Jason well,” Graham said. “They all believed he should not be convicted, the ones I talked to, and they hoped the verdict would have gone a different way.”
Van Dyke’s lead attorney, Daniel Herbert, said his client will appeal the decision. He also predicted the trial’s outcome would have a chilling effect on police officers.
“It really is a sad day for law enforcement,” Herbert said. “I can only imagine if police officers think they can never fire against someone who was acting the way Laquan McDonald had … police officers are going to become security guards. They are not going to want to go out and confront someone.”
McDonald’s great-uncle, the Rev. Marvin Hunter, praised the verdict as a watershed moment in the nation’s civil rights history.
During a 20-minute address at the sanctuary of Grace Memorial Baptist Church on the West Side, Hunter said the family will be better able to forgive Van Dyke when the convicted officer asks for forgiveness.
“This family has never once asked for revenge,” Hunter said. “This family wanted justice because revenge belongs to God, and it is God’s alone. We don’t get to share in that.”
Hunter instead urged supporters to direct their anger to voting booths during upcoming City Council races and at a police contract he repeatedly denounced as a “law” that limits the power of police officials to fire bad cops.
“I’m saying to you, Chicago and America, let us begin healing. But let us not heal and become docile. Let us heal and become motivated and activated,” Hunter said.
It’s not like Jason Van Dyke getting convicted is a win. But it’s a bit of justice for the fatal 16 shots at the 17 year old kid with a knife in Chicago. It is telling of the future. If Jason Van Dyke got off free, it would be the hugest injustice to humanity. And with all the deaths and gun violence in Chicago, this high profile verdict shows a sign of hope.