The Jason Van Dyke verdict a step toward healing a broken Chicago



October 9, 2018 - 10:38 AM

People rally in Chicago after a jury delivered a guilty verdict on Friday in the trial of Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke in the shooting death of Laquan McDonald. Chris Walker/Chicago Tribune/TNS

It took a Cook County jury less than eight hours to affirm a conclusion most of Chicago reached nearly three years ago: Police Officer Jason Van Dyke did not need to kill Laquan McDonald.
Van Dyke was convicted Friday of second-degree murder and 16 counts of aggravated battery — one for each of the bullets that struck the black teenager on Oct. 20, 2014. To reach a verdict of second-degree murder, the jury had to find that Van Dyke fired because he was afraid for his safety, but that his fear was unreasonable.
We salute the jurors for capably shouldering this sobering responsibility. Their verdict is not cause for celebration. Still, we hope it marks a turning point for a city working desperately to heal the broken trust between its police and citizens.
A police video of the shooting — released to the public in November 2015 after a lengthy legal battle — showed Van Dyke firing at McDonald, who was walking away from police officers, holding a 3-inch knife and ignoring their orders to stop. Van Dyke kept firing after McDonald collapsed, dying, in the middle of South Pulaski Road.
Jurors watched that video dozens of times during 10 days of testimony. They also watched a cartoonish animated version presented by defense attorneys that purported to show the shooting from Van Dyke’s perspective. And they heard Van Dyke testify that neither version accurately represented what he saw: the teenager menacing him with a knife while advancing toward the officer, then trying to get up after he’d collapsed from the first gunshots.
If you’ve seen the police video yourself, you know how utterly damning it is. We’re not surprised the jurors rejected a defense team reinterpretation starkly at odds with what their own eyes could see.
Absent that video, it’s unlikely that McDonald’s death would have become the catalyst for reform. It’s unlikely most Chicagoans would know his name at all.
On the night of the shooting, a police union spokesman at the scene fed reporters a false narrative in which Van Dyke fired in self-defense after McDonald lunged at him with a knife. The Police Department’s official statement did not correct the falsehoods. Van Dyke’s fellow officers closed ranks, coordinating their stories to protect him. Three of them now face criminal charges for conspiring to provide “virtually identical false information,” according to prosecutors.
The video told a different story. And it revealed some outrageous malfeasance. Questions about the lack of sound with the images led to the discovery that many officers were routinely disabling their vehicles’ cameras or audio — at least five other cameras had recorded video at the scene, all without sound. The Cook County state’s attorney’s office acknowledged that video supplied by police in other criminal cases rarely included audio. Neither prosecutors nor police supervisors had bothered to find out why.
We’re recounting all of this as a reminder that McDonald’s death exposed much more than what Mayor Rahm Emanuel first tried to present as a problem with “one individual.” It revealed systemic failures in the Police Department, from top to bottom. It showed the complicity of generations of politicians who were eager to look the other way.
Sustained outrage over McDonald’s death has forced the city to acknowledge those failures and work in earnest to address them. Real progress has been made, but there is still a long way to go before Chicagoans are confident that police officers are being held accountable for their actions.
Friday’s verdict is a painful but important step.
— The Chicago Tribune

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