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‘Today we got justice’: What an officer’s guilty verdict for teen shooting means to Chicago

A Chicago jury convicted a white police officer of murdering a black teenager on Friday. Jason Van Dyke was found guilty of second-degree murder in the death of Laquan McDonald. Van Dyke shot the teen multiple times in a 2014 confrontation. John Yang talks with Brandis Friedman about the verdict, the city’s reaction and what the jurors said about the trial.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Now we return to today's guilty verdict in the Chicago police shooting trial.

    John Yang has our report.

  • Woman:

    We, the jury, find the defendant, Jason Van Dyke, guilty.

  • John Yang:

    Jurors deliberated about seven-and-a-half-hours before convicting Jason Van Dyke of second-degree murder and 16 charges of aggravated battery, one count for each of the shots the former Chicago police officer fired into 17-year-old Laquan four years ago this month.

    Van Dyke sat stone-faced while the verdict was read.

  • Woman:

    Guilty of aggravated battery with a firearm.

  • John Yang:

    And a short time later was led out in handcuffs.

    Outside the courthouse on Chicago's South Side, there was jubilation.

    Jedidiah Brown is a community activist.

  • Jedidiah Brown:

    This is the best moment as a Chicagoan that I have ever seen in my life.

    I have never — this is the first — this is my best experience as a black man, as a Chicagoan, as an Illinoisan, and as a man in the United States of America. We never get justice. Today, we got justice.

  • John Yang:

    The case of a black teenager killed at the hands of a white police officer gained national attention and inflamed long-simmering tensions between Chicago police and the city's minority residents.

    Van Dyke's trial marked the first time in more than three decades a Chicago officer faced murder charges for a killing while on duty. The prosecution's case centered on graphic dash-cam video that showed McDonald seemingly moving away from officers as Van Dyke opened fire just seconds after arriving.

    Van Dyke testified he acted in self-defense.

  • Jason Van Dyke:

    He waved the knife from his lower right side upwards across his body towards my left shoulder.

  • Man:

    And when he did that, what did you do, Officer?

  • John Yang:

    I shot him.

  • John Yang:

    Defense attorney Daniel Herbert, a former Chicago cop, called Van Dyke's conviction a sad day for law enforcement.

  • Daniel Herbert:

    If police officers think that they can never fire against somebody that is acting the way Laquan McDonald did when they're 12 feet away from them, I think that what we are going to have is, police officers are going to become security guards.

  • John Yang:

    Prosecutor Joseph McMahon praised the outcome.

  • Joseph McMahon:

    This is a gratifying verdict. We are all pleased that we have been successful in our pursuit for justice for Laquan McDonald.

  • John Yang:

    Van Dyke could face decades behind bars when he is sentenced.

    For more on today's verdict and the reaction to it, we're joined by Brandis Friedman. She followed the trial for "Chicago Tonight" on PBS station WTTW.

    Brandis, thanks so much for joining us.

    What's the reaction? We have seen — in that tape piece, we saw the scene outside the courthouse. I have seen pictures of marchers going through downtown Chicago. What's the reaction been?

  • Brandis Friedman:

    So we have heard from a lot of different community members. Many of them say that they think this is at least some sort of justice for Laquan McDonald, this is a step towards justice.

    So I think what we're seeing in the streets, a lot of us are calling them protests. I think these are actually more like demonstrations. I don't think any of them are actually protesting the verdict itself. They are actually celebrating, kind of marching in solidarity, in remembrance of Laquan McDonald.

  • John Yang:

    Van Dyke was originally charged with first-degree murder. The jury convicted him on second-degree murder. As I understand it, that suggests that they believe he did believe that his life was endangered, but that that belief was unreasonable.

    I know you heard some of the jurors talk about their verdict. What did they say their decision turned on?

  • Brandis Friedman:

    Well, they say a number of things.

    So, one of them was the option to convict on second-degree murder, instead of first-degree murder. The jurors say they felt that Jason Van Dyke actually felt that he was in danger, that he and the officers around him faced an imminent risk, and that that is what he acted on.

    So that's why they didn't convict on first-degree murder, second-degree instead. They also say it was Van Dyke's testimony. They didn't think that he was very credible. They say that he had a hard time recalling what happened the night of the incident, and that what he said, a lot of it didn't match what they saw in the video, specifically when Van Dyke, you just heard, testified that he saw Laquan McDonald, from his perspective, raise that knife in his direction.

    They say the video doesn't bear that out. And then there is the video. They say they watched it obviously many times in the courtroom. But they also watched it a lot in their own deliberations. And that had a good deal to do with it.

    They also felt that Van Dyke, being an officer of almost 20 years, that he should have been able to de-escalate the situation, rather than opening fire.

  • John Yang:

    And so much was made in leading up to the trial about the makeup of that jury. What was the racial makeup of the jury?

  • Brandis Friedman:

    So the jury, a lot of people say that it wasn't very diverse. I can't recall exactly the breakdown, men and women, as well as racial diversity.

    But this case was made out to be a lot about race. And there was only one African-American juror. And we did hear from her this afternoon as well. But when we heard from those jurors, one of them said, you know, race came up very little in their deliberations. For them, this wasn't about race. In fact, one of them said, we were here for justice.

  • John Yang:

    A lot has happened — or this has had a big effect on the city of Chicago. A police commissioner lost his job. The state's attorney — the prosecuting attorney for the county was — was voted out.

    Is there some sense that this is a turning point?

  • Brandis Friedman:

    I think a lot of people hope that this is a turning point. And, like you said, a lot has happened since then.

    A lot of the protesters — and since this video has come out, a lot of them have also been asking for Mayor Rahm Emanuel's job. And he several weeks ago announced that he's not running. And that former police superintendent who lost his job at the time, he is one of the very many people who is running to replace him.

    So that will be another change. But the Police Accountability Task Force that was appointed shortly after the video was released, it was one of many in a succession. And so some people, I think, are also maybe a bit jaded in thinking that this is going to be a turning point.

    That turning point could have been when the video was released, because, as you said, a lot has happened since then. The city has finally come to an agreement on a consent decree with the state's attorney general.

    So I think there is some hope, but, obviously, the city's history of distrust between the community and the police department, it's generations old. And so it's probably going to take a lot more than this verdict to implement lots of heavy change.

  • John Yang:

    Brandis Friedman of WTTW, "Chicago Tonight," thanks so much.

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