Ex-Chicago officer gets nearly 7 years in Laquan McDonald shooting

FAN Editor

Chicago — A white former Chicago police officer has been sentenced to 81 months in prison — nearly 7 years — in the 2014 killing of a black teen that was captured on a shocking dashcam video.

Judge Vincent Gaughan issued his sentence Friday for Jason Van Dyke in the death of Laquan McDonald. Van Dyke was convicted in October of second-degree murder and 16 counts of aggravated battery, one for each shot Van Dyke fired that struck McDonald. 

Estimates of the sentence Van Dyke might have gotten had varied wildly. The murder charge carries a prison term of four to 20 years, but Gaughan also could have given Van Dyke probation for that count. The aggravated battery charge carries a sentence of six to 30 years behind bars and does not allow for probation alone. 

Van Dyke’s defense asked the judge Friday to sentence Van Dyke to probation on the second-degree murder conviction alone, while prosecutors argued he should also be sentenced on the aggravated battery counts. The minimum for those convictions can be as high as 96 years, but prosecutors asked a judge for 18 to 20 years.

Issuing his sentence, Gaughan agreed to sentence Van Dyke on the second-degree murder charge alone.

The judge called the case a “tragedy for both sides.” 

The sentencing comes a day after another judge acquitted three other officers who had been accused of covering up for Van Dyke and lying to support his version of events. Van Dyke’s trial and that of the three other officers hinged on the video, which showed Van Dyke opening fire on the teen, who was holding a knife, within seconds of getting out of his police SUV as the teen apparently walked away. He continued to shoot the 17-year-old while he was lying on the street. Police were responding to a report of a male who was breaking into trucks and stealing radios on the city’s South Side on the night of Oct. 20, 2014.   

Edward Nance cries as he testifies at the Jan. 18 sentencing hearing of Chicago officer Jason Van Dyke. Nance says Van Dyke slammed him during a 2007 traffic stop. Pool

Van Dyke, 40, arrived at the courthouse Friday morning wearing a yellow jail jumpsuit and being guarded by sheriff’s deputies. He addressed the court before the judge issued his ruling late Friday afternoon, saying he prays daily for the soul of Laquan McDonald and that the teen’s family is suffering “due to my actions.” He said he opened fire because he feared for his life and that killing McDonald was “the last thing I ever wanted to do.”

“As a God-fearing man and a father, I will live with this the rest of my life,” Van Dyke said.

The hearing spanned the day, with multiple witnesses taking the stand to give emotional testimony. Gaughan heard from prosecution witnesses as the state presented potential “aggravating factors” to support their request for a sentence of 18-20 years. Several black motorists testified that Van Dyke used racial slurs and excessive force during traffic stops in the years before McDonald’s shooting, and one man was unable to stop crying as he described the lasting impact of the assault he said left him in near-constant pain.  

Edward Nance testified that Van Dyke pulled him out of a car after a 2007 traffic stop. Nance said he handcuffed him, slammed him against the vehicle twice and threw him on the floor in the back of a cruiser, injuring him so severely he later required rotator cuff surgeries on both his shoulders. 

“He grabbed my arm, and I tried to tell him that hurt, but it was like he didn’t care,” Nance said.

Nance said Van Dyke yelled obscenities at him and never told him why he was being pulled over. 

Sobbing, Nance said he can no longer lift his arms over his shoulders and he can no longer work as a youth referee. Nance said the incident also left him emotionally traumatized and that he suffers from depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and attention deficit disorder.

Nance said he filed a civil rights lawsuit against Van Dyke, the city of Chicago and several other members of the Chicago Police Department and a jury issued a verdict in his favor. He said he filed a report with the Independent Police Review Authority, who took no action against Van Dyke.

“He went to work the next damn day like nothing happened,” Nance said.

Former Chicago police Officer Jason Van Dyke and his attorney Daniel Herbert listen during Van Dyke’s sentencing hearing at the Leighton Criminal Court Building, Friday, Jan. 18, 2019, in Chicago, for the 2014 shooting of Laquan McDonald. Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune via AP, Pool

Another witness said Van Dyke held a gun to his temple during a 2005 traffic stop and called him a racial slur. The witness said the incident traumatized him. A defense attorney said the witness didn’t include those allegations in a complaint he filed against Van Dyke at the time.

Another man who had been arrested by Van Dyke was visibly shaken as he testified that Van Dyke choked him following a traffic stop and field sobriety test in 2011.

“I can’t even look at the man right now, I just think of the night he choked me,” the witness said. “He just didn’t have no remorse or nothing.”

Special prosecutor Joseph McMahon called Van Dyke’s actions “devastating” for the McDonald family, but said Van Dyke’s conduct has also impacted the witnesses who testified Friday and the community as a whole by eroding trust in police.

“Nothing I can say this afternoon from this podium will speak to you louder or more effectively than what they told you — not just what happened to them in 2005, 2007, 2009, and 2011, but how the defendant’s actions, how his physical attack, has continued to harm them to this day,” McMahon said.

The Rev. Marvin Hunter, Laquan McDonald’s great-uncle, read a victim impact statement he wrote from the perspective of the slain teen. 

“I am a 17-year-old boy. I am a victim of murder in the second degree, and 16 counts of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon,” the statement began. “I am unable to speak with my own voice.”

The statement said the teen had been working a construction job at the time of his death and looking forward to again living in the same home with his mother and sister. But Van Dyke, he said, “with his cold, callous disregard for the life of a young black man, without me provoking him, robbed us of this.”

“The story of my life is that in the short time of my life I have worked hard to correct the mistakes I have made, but in a matter of six seconds, he took 16 shots and ended the possibility of this forever,” Hunter read.

The teen’s death has brought “inconsolable pain” to the McDonald family, but Van Dyke’s actions have also impacted the officer’s own family, the statement said.

“Please think about me and my life when you sentence this person to prison,” the statement said. “Why should this person, who has ended my life forever because he chose to become judge, jury and executioner and has never asked for forgiveness, be free, when I’m dead forever?”  

Tiffany Van Dyke testifies at the sentencing hearing of her husband Jason Van Dyke, who was sentenced to nearly 7 years Friday in the 2014 shooting death of black teen Laquan McDonald pool

The judge also heard from witnesses as the defense presented possible “mitigating” factors to support their request for probation. Defense attorneys submitted nearly 200 letters from supporters asking the judge for leniency, including notes from his wife and children, reports CBS Chicago.

Van Dyke’s oldest daughter Kaylee Van Dyke, 17, cried as she testified about being bullied at school and missing her father on birthdays and Thanksgiving. The girl’s testimony was not broadcast, but reporters in the courtroom tweeted out their notes from her testimony.

“My heart sincerely goes out to the McDonald family, but it’s time to bring my dad home,” Kaylee Van Dyke said, reports CBS Chicago’s Roseanne Tellez.

Jason Van Dyke’s wife Tiffany Van Dyke testified her life has been “a nightmare.” She called her husband a “kind, gentle man” and described him as her “everything,” her “other half” and her “heart.”

“He is a great human being, a great father and a wonderful husband,” Tiffany Van Dyke said. “He was also a very great, dedicated police officer to the city of Chicago. They have lost a great officer.”

She echoed other family members who testified that her husband isn’t racist or full of hatred. She said her two daughters don’t eat or sleep and get bullied at school by kids who tell them “their father is a murderer.” She said her family fields threats and and fears for their safety.

Chicago cops found not guilty of covering up Laquan McDonald shooting

Sobbing, Tiffany Van Dyke said her biggest fear is that someone will kill her husband “for something he did as a police officer — something he was trained to do.”

“There was no malice, no hatred that night,” she said. “It was simply a man doing his job.”

When asked what she would say to the McDonald family, she said her family prays for them, and she called McDonald’s death a tragedy. She said she wants “both sides” to have peace.

She begged the judge for a lenient sentence, saying her husband would never work again and has already paid “the ultimate price.”

Jason Van Dyke wiped his nose and eyes with a tissue as his wife testified. 

Former Chicago Fraternal Order of Police president Dean Angelo also took the stand in Van Dyke’s defense. He described the night of McDonald’s shooting as a “perfect storm.”

Laquan McDonald CBS

“I know this wasn’t something he set out to do,” Angelo said. “This was a situation that arose, for lack of any of description, by a lack of compliance. If a knife is dropped, we’re not here.”

Van Dyke’s attorney Darren O’Brien said Van Dyke had been responding to a police call over violent actions by McDonald.

“Everything that happened was set in motion by Mr. McDonald,” O’Brien said.

In acquitting the three officers accused of covering up for Van Dyke on Thursday, Cook County Judge Domenica Stephenson described McDonald as an “armed offender” and noted that he refused to drop the knife. The statements appeared to depart from the jury who convicted Van Dyke, which found the teen did not pose a threat to the officer.

Stephenson rejected the state’s argument that Thomas Gaffney, David March and Joseph Walsh, who was Van Dyke’s partner, submitted false reports to try to prevent or shape any criminal investigation of the shooting. Among other things, they said the officers falsely claimed that Van Dyke shot McDonald after McDonald aggressively swung a knife at police and that he kept shooting the teen because McDonald was trying to get up still armed with the knife.        

Stephenson rejected prosecution arguments that the video demonstrated officers were lying when they described McDonald as moving even after he was shot.

“An officer could have reasonably believed an attack was imminent,” she said. “It was borne out in the video that McDonald continued to move after he fell to the ground” and refused to relinquish a knife.

The video appeared to show the teen collapsing in a heap after the first few shots and moving in large part because bullets kept striking his body for 10 more seconds.

 Ex-Officer Joseph Walsh, former Detective David March and Chicago Police Officer Thomas Gaffney arrive in court on the first day of their trial in Chicago on Nov. 27, 2018. Zbigniew Bzdak/Chicago Tribune via AP, Pool

Stephenson said the video amounts to a “vantage point” that was taken from a different angle than Walsh’s view. She said comparing the police reports to the video to determine whether the reports were true — as the state had argued — would amount to looking at only a portion of the evidence.

City Hall released the video to the public in November 2015 — 13 months after the shooting — and acted only because a judge ordered it to do so. The charges against Van Dyke were not announced until the day of the video’s release.

The case cost the police superintendent his job and was widely seen as the reason the county’s top prosecutor was voted out of office a few months later. It was also thought to be a major factor in Mayor Rahm Emmanuel’s decision not to seek a third term.

The accusations triggered a federal investigation, resulting in a blistering report that found Chicago officers routinely used excessive force and violated the rights of residents, particularly minorities. The city implemented a new policy that requires video of fatal police shootings to be released within 60 days, accelerated a program to equip all officers with body cameras and adopted other reforms to change the way police shootings are investigated.  

In a statement released after the sentencing, Emmanuel and Chicago police chief Eddie Johnson said their work to bring lasting reform to the police department will continue.

“While a jury and judge have rendered their decisions, all of us who love Chicago and call this city home must continue to work together, listen to each other, and repair relationships that will make Chicago safer and stronger for generations to come,” the statement read.

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