For Fatal Shooting of Laquan McDonald, Chicago Cop Sentenced to Nearly 7 Years
By Megan Crepeau, Christy Gutowski, Jason Meisner and Stacy St. Clair
Former Chicago police Officer Jason Van Dyke was sentenced Friday to nearly seven years in prison for the fatal on-duty shooting of Laquan McDonald, bringing to a close one of the most racially fraught and socially significant chapters in recent Chicago history.
Van Dyke remained stoic as Cook County Circuit Judge Vincent Gaughan announced the sentence about 5:30 p.m. after a long day of often emotional testimony. Moments later, Van Dyke's teenage daughter seated in the gallery burst into tears.
But the relatively lenient six-year, nine-month sentence for second-degree murder counts as a victory for Van Dyke, who could be out of custody in as little as three years, his attorney told reporters.
"He truly felt great," the attorney, Daniel Herbert, said of Van Dyke. "He was not just relieved, he was happy. It's the first time I've seen the guy _ honestly since this whole ordeal started _ where he was happy. He's certainly not happy about going to jail. He's certainly not happy about missing his family. But he's happy about the prospect of life ahead of him."
In October, Van Dyke became the first Chicago police officer in a half-century to be convicted of murder in an on-duty shooting. A jury found him guilty on one count of second-degree murder and 16 counts of aggravated battery _ one for each bullet that hit McDonald's body in October 2014 as the teen walked away from police on Pulaski Road while holding a knife.
Graphic police dashboard camera footage of the shooting released more than a year later sparked weeks of chaos and political upheaval, exposing Chicago's long-standing racial fault lines and exacerbating the already-fraught relationship between police and minority communities.
Although he had sought a sentence about three times lengthier, special prosecutor Joseph McMahon told reporters in the Leighton Criminal Court Building that justice had been served.
"I understand the sentence is not exactly what the McDonald and Hunter families wanted," said McMahon, who requested a prison term of 18 to 20 years. "But the sentence, like the verdict, does hold the defendant accountable."
McMahon said McDonald's mother, Tina Hunter, was in the courthouse watching the proceedings but did not want to be in the courtroom. She left the building before the sentence was announced, and McMahon said he called her with the judge's decision.
"It was extremely difficult," McMahon said of the conversation. "She has had to relive her son's murder again and again."
Just after 6 p.m. Friday, Van Dyke's wife, father and young daughters left the courthouse as a large group of bystanders in the lobby jeered in their direction, shouting "16 shots" as sheriff's deputies escorted them down the courthouse steps and into a waiting vehicle on California Avenue.
Gaughan imposed the sentence after a daylong hearing that drew tears from witnesses on the stand and from Van Dyke himself, who sat slouched at the defense table in a bright yellow jail uniform.
While predicting his sentence would disappoint "100 percent" of those in the courtroom, Gaughan made a number of key rulings in favor of the defense. In particular, he sentenced Van Dyke only for the second-degree murder conviction, meaning he will serve just half the sentence if he qualifies for day-for-day good-behavior credit.
If instead the judge had sentenced him only on the aggravated battery convictions, Van Dyke could have been subject to a lengthier term behind bars. He also would have had to serve at least 85 percent of that sentence.
In fashioning his decision, Gaughan said the law required him to consider the most serious charge for which Van Dyke was convicted. Common sense, the judge found, dictated that be second-degree murder, not aggravated battery. However, Illinois law considers aggravated battery with a gun the more serious offense of the two, carrying stiffer penalties.
"Is it more serious for Laquan McDonald to be shot by a firearm or is it more serious for Laquan McDonald to be murdered by a firearm?" Gaughan said in explaining his reasoning.
Witnesses called by Van Dyke's legal team at the marathon hearing said the public attention to the case has emotionally shattered his family.
"My life has been a nightmare," Van Dyke's wife, Tiffany, said in a choked voice, echoing similar testimony from the former officer's father, sister and 17-year-old daughter. "Life is torture. My heart is broken."
Toward the end of her half-hour on the witness stand, she was asked what she feared most about a long prison sentence for her husband.
She began to sob, her anguished cries echoing in Gaughan's courtroom.
"My biggest fear is that somebody would kill my husband for something he did as a police officer, something he was trained to do," she cried. "There was no malice, no hatred on that night. He was simply doing his job."
Van Dyke's older daughter, Kaylee, sitting ramrod-straight on the witness stand, described sinking into a depression after her father's conviction three months ago when she realized he would not be there to celebrate her 17th birthday just days later.
As she began to describe her only contact with her father _ one phone call a day and occasional visits at the faraway Quad Cities-area jail where he has been detained _ she started to cry.
"I touch his hand through a piece of dirty glass and speak on a phone that the connection breaks in and out of," she said.
Watching from the defense table, Van Dyke wiped away a tear.
Toward the end of the hearing, Van Dyke himself stood and said the day he shot McDonald was the worst of his life.
It was the first time he had ever had to fire his weapon in the line of duty, he said, bending his head down to read closely from a handwritten statement.
"And I'm very proud of that fact," he said. "... The last thing I wanted to do was to shoot Laquan McDonald."
Van Dyke said he "tried to make the right decision in a rapidly escalating, dangerous situation."
"It is a choice that I will live with forever," he said.
McDonald's great-uncle, the Rev. Marvin Hunter, read from the witness stand a letter he wrote from the perspective of his grand-nephew, saying McDonald's death devastated the family.
The letter said Hunter used McDonald's last paycheck from his construction job to buy the suit the teen was buried in.
The killing came just weeks before McDonald was to begin living under the same roof again with his sister and mother, who had overcome drug addiction, he said.
"I was so happy for the possibility of that day," the letter said. "However, Jason Van Dyke ... robbed us of this."
The letter ended with a request to punish Van Dyke for McDonald's killing, arguing that the former officer had shown no remorse for his actions that night.
"What happened to me can never be changed, but other young black men and women will not have to face Jason Van Dyke and his evil and selfish ways," the letter said. "I'm a real victim of murder and that can never be changed. Please think about me and my life when you sentence this person to prison."
While the many civilian complaints against Van Dyke were not introduced at trial, prosecutors on Friday called four witnesses _ all black men _ who one after another painted Van Dyke as an abusive, out-of-control officer protected by inept police oversight agencies.
One man said Van Dyke choked him to try to get him to spit out a cough drop during a DUI stop. Another said the officer berated him using a racial slur. A third said Van Dyke deserved prison time simply for the "chaotic" way he handled a traffic stop.
All of them said their encounters with Van Dyke still resonate, particularly Edward Nance, who wept uncontrollably on the witness stand as he described in vivid detail how Van Dyke allegedly brutalized him after a traffic stop in 2007.
At times taking lengthy pauses to wipe away tears, Nance said Van Dyke pulled him violently out of the car by the arm, then threw him facedown onto the floor of the back seat. He said he felt pain in his arms and tried to tell Van Dyke he couldn't move, but the officer told him to "shut up and lay down."
The injuries he suffered required two surgeries for both his shoulders and rotator cuffs, he said, and he still has not regained the full use of his arms.
In arguing for a lengthier sentence, McMahon said Van Dyke's actions have been "devastating" not only for McDonald's family and the city of Chicago but also for a nation that watched a uniformed police officer kill a teenager on video.
"He has betrayed the public trust that we as a community give to law enforcement," the prosecutor said. "Jason Van Dyke committed violent, serious crimes in his capacity as a police officer for the city of Chicago.
"He betrayed his fellow police officers," McMahon said. "His conduct was so egregious, so different from every other police officer at that scene. That is why we are here today."
Darren O'Brien, who also represents Van Dyke, told Gaughan that the case "screamed out" for probation given Van Dyke's clean record and supportive family.
"This whole case has been devastating. It's a tragedy for all," said O'Brien, noting how difficult and dangerous prison can be for former police officers.
"This was the only time he ever fired his weapon in the life of duty. What does that mean? That's huge," he said. "It means whatever was going on in that street that night scared him more than anything else he ever saw."
Gaughan's decision comes a day after his colleague, Judge Domenica Stephenson, issued a surprisingly brutal take-down of the prosecution case in acquitting retired Detective David March, ex-patrolman Joseph Walsh and Officer Thomas Gaffney on all charges.
Stephenson made much of the fact that the infamous police dashcam video did not show the shooting from the vantage of Van Dyke or his partner, Walsh _ a note that Van Dyke's attorneys also emphasized at his trial, though without success.
Stephenson also suggested that Van Dyke and Walsh could have had a reasonable fear for their safety and should not be second-guessed "as to what they should have believed."
Van Dyke's jury disagreed with her assessment, finding that the officer's belief that he was justified in shooting McDonald was unwarranted.
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