CHICAGO — The white Chicago police officer who gunned down a black teenager in 2014 was sentenced Friday to nearly seven years in prison, bringing an end to a historic case that was centered on a shocking dashcam video and fueled national debates about race and policing and law enforcement’s “code of silence.”
Jason Van Dyke was convicted last year of second-degree murder and 16 counts of aggravated battery — one for each bullet he fired at Laquan McDonald.
Moments before learning the sentence, Van Dyke acknowledged the teen’s death, telling the judge that “as a God-fearing man and father, I will have to live with this the rest of my life.”
Judge Vincent Gaughan did not characterize Van Dyke’s decision to open fire, saying only that it changed both McDonald’s and Van Dyke’s families forever.
“That’s shame,” he said. You can see the pain … on both families … This is not easy.” He also said he knew the sentence would not please anyone.
“I assume 100 percent of people will be disappointed.”
After the judge’s announcement, Van Dyke’s father said, “They threw him underneath the bridge.”
His older daughter began crying and said “I want him home.”
Earlier in the day, several black motorists testified that he used a racial slur and excessive force during traffic stops in the years before the 2014 shooting.
One of those witnesses, Vidale Joy, said Van Dyke used a racial slur after pulling him over in 2005 and at one point put a gun to Joy’s head. He said Van Dyke “looked infuriated” and seemed “out of his mind.” Under cross examination, Joy acknowledged that he did not allege Van Dyke used a slur in his first accounts of the stop.
Another witness, Ed Nance, struggled to maintain his composure as he looked across the room to identify Van Dyke. Testifying about a 2007 traffic stop, he said the officer cursed and slammed him on the car’s hood, grabbed him by the arms and pulled him to the squad car.
Hours later, Van Dyke’s relatives tried to defend and humanize him, saying he’s a good father and husband who goes out of his way to help and who is not racist.
The issue of race has loomed over the case for more than four years, although it was rarely raised at trial. One of the only instances was during opening statements, when special prosecutor Joseph McMahon told jurors that Van Dyke saw “a black boy walking down the street” who had “the audacity to ignore the police.”
Friday’s testimony came a day after a different judge acquitted three officers accused of trying to conceal what happened to protect Van Dyke, who was the first Chicago officer found guilty in an on-duty shooting in a half century and probably the first ever in the shooting of an African-American.
At the sentencing, McDonald’s uncle read a letter written from the slain teen’s perspective, telling the court that Van Dyke killed him without provocation.
“I am a 17-year-old boy, and I am a victim of murder,” Marvin Hunter said. “I am unable to speak in my own voice” because an officer “thought he would become judge, jury and executioner.”
In asking for a long sentence, Hunter added: “Why should this person who ended my life forever … who has never asked for forgiveness … be free when I am dead for forever?”
Van Dyke’s wife said her life has been “a nightmare” since her husband was charged. She said she was denied a job and her daughter was not accepted into a dance group because of their last name.
If Van Dyke goes to prison, she said, her biggest fear is that “somebody will kill my husband for something he did as a police officer, something he was trained to do.”
She looked up over her shoulder and addressed the judge directly: “His life is over. Please, please. He has paid the price already … I beg for the least amount of time.”
During her testimony, Van Dyke wiped his nose and eyes with a tissue while seated at the defense table in a yellow jail jumpsuit.
One of his daughters blamed the media for shaming police officers “for doing their jobs.”
Kaylee Van Dyke, also 17, said the media “twists events, making people create negative thoughts.” She said police officers don’t care about people’s color, “they care about your safety.” She also said she regrets all the times she didn’t hug her father.
Keith Thompson described his brother-in-law as a “gentle giant” and not a “monster.” Thompson, who is black and whose wife is the sister of Van Dyke’s wife, said he has never seen anything to indicate that Van Dyke is racist in the 13 years they’ve been acquainted.
Van Dyke’s sister, Heidi Kauffunger, told the court that her brother has been abandoned by family and friends since he was charged. She begged the court for mercy and said if her brother goes to prison the family “will lose everything.” She says Van Dyke’s two daughters have been bullied and that the older one even had the words “16 shots” written on her school desk.
Because Illinois judges are typically required to sentence defendants for the most serious crime of which they are convicted, attorneys made arguments about the severity of the offenses, as governed by the state’s complex guidelines. Judge Vincent Gaughan’s decision on that point will help determine the sentence.
The defense wants Van Dyke, 40, to be sentenced primarily for the second-degree murder charge, partly because it carries a shorter mandatory minimum prison term of four years. Prosecutors want the judge to focus on the 16 aggravated battery counts because each one carries a mandatory minimum prison term of six years, and sentences for each count may have to be served consecutively instead of at the same time.
On Thursday, Cook County Judge Domenica Stephenson cleared former officer Joseph Walsh, former detective David March and officer Thomas Gaffney on charges of obstruction of justice, official misconduct and conspiracy.
Stephenson accepted the argument that jurors in the Van Dyke case rejected: that the video that sparked protests and a federal investigation of the police force was just one perspective of the events that unfolded on the South Side.
The judge said the video showed only one viewpoint of the confrontation between Van Dyke and the teen armed with a small knife. She found no indication the officers tried to hide evidence or made little effort to talk to witnesses.
“The evidence shows just the opposite,” she said. She singled out how they preserved the graphic video at the heart of the case.
The judge in her ruling 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.
The footage showed Van Dyke opening fire within seconds of getting out of his police SUV and continuing to shoot the teen 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.
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.