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Will a police officer’s murder trial be a turning point in Chicago?

Defense attorneys began presenting their case Monday in the trial of a white police officer accused of shooting Laquan McDonald in 2014. Jason Van Dyke has pleaded not guilty to two counts of first-degree murder and other charges, after firing on the black teenager 16 times. Amna Nawaz talks with Jennifer White, host of the WBEZ podcast "16 Shots."

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Defense attorneys in Chicago began making their case today in the trial of a white police officer accused of murdering an African-American teenager in 2014.

    Four years after the shooting, the trial and case have taken on huge importance in Chicago, a city already grappling with excessive gun violence and far too many homicides.

    As Amna Nawaz tells us, two parts of the story have particularly stood out. The policeman fired 16 times, and many say the video of that night's shooting undercuts the credibility of the police.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    It's the first time in decades a Chicago police officer has been charged with murder in an on-duty shooting.

    Jason Van Dyke shot and killed Laquan McDonald, a black 17-year-old, in October of 2014. Van Dyke has pleaded not guilty to two counts of first-degree murder and other charges. His defense team has said McDonald was threatening Van Dyke, who feared for his safety.

  • Dan Herbert:

    An out-of-control individual who didn't care about anyone, not citizens, not armed police officers, and not himself.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Van Dyke and his partner were responding as backup to a 911 call on Chicago's South Side. The caller said someone, later identified as McDonald, was breaking car windows in a parking lot and had a knife.

    Dash-cam video of the shooting shows Van Dyke arriving, getting out of his car, and firing 16 shots at McDonald as he appears to walk away. Van Dyke's attorneys have said he was acting in self-defense.

    Last week, prosecutors called officers who were on the scene to testify. The first officer to confront McDonald said he had a knife, and was questioned as to whether McDonald was a threat.

  • Question:

    Did he threaten you with the knife at all?

  • Joseph McElligott:

    He held it out. He didn't say anything verbally, no.

  • Question:

    The question, officer, is, did he threaten you with the knife?

  • Joseph McElligott:


  • Amna Nawaz:

    Van Dyke's partner that night testified that McDonald moved like he was going to attack with a knife — quote — "I was convinced that Officer Van Dyke took necessary action to save himself and myself," Van Dyke's partner said. He requested his testimony not be recorded.

    Prosecutors argued that Van Dyke was never in danger. They have repeatedly played the dash-cam video of the shooting for jurors and showed diagrams of where the bullets hit McDonald.

  • Joe McMahon:

    The defendant continues to pull the trigger of his gun over and over, until he empties the entire clip of the gun.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    For 13 months after the shooting, city officials refused to release the dash-cam video, citing an ongoing criminal investigation, until a judge ordered them to release it.

    The video release sparked protests in Chicago, a city with a history of excessive police violence against African-American residents. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel fired Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy amid calls for his own resignation. Earlier this month, Emanuel announced that he will not see reelection in February.

    Three officers are now being prosecuted for allegedly covering up for Van Dyke and lying about the events of that night. As the trial continues, it remains unclear if Van Dyke himself will testify.

    Let's take a look now at some of the important moments of this trial so far, and the larger impact of this case.

    Jennifer White is with WBEZ Chicago Public Media. She's the host of their podcast done in conjunction with The Chicago Tribune about this case. It's called "16 Shots."

    Jennifer White, welcome to the "NewsHour."

    I want to ask you, the defense today began to lay out their case for Officer Van Dyke, but for 11 days before that, it was the prosecution's turn laying out their argument.

    What was the thrust of the case that they were making?

  • Jennifer White:

    Well, the thrust of their case is that the shooting wasn't justified, that Jason Van Dyke wasn't reasonably in fear of his life or reasonably in fear that Laquan McDonald was a danger to others before he fired his weapon.

    And that is really the central question. And things working — also working as part of their case is the fact that none of the other officers on the scene fired their guns. And, of course, there's the video that seems to show Laquan McDonald moving away from Jason Van Dyke.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    We saw a couple of clips there, a few of the other officers testifying.

    Officer Van Dyke has maintained that he felt he was in danger at the time of that encounter. How did the impact — the other testimonies from the other police officers that you mentioned, how has that impacted the case, do you think?

  • Jennifer White:

    Well, it's hard to say what jurors are taking in.

    Jason Van Dyke's partner that evening, of course, testified that he too felt Laquan McDonald was a danger. That officer, which is not evidence being given to the jury, is being charged in a separate case for conspiracy to cover up the truth of the shooting.

    So it's hard to say what jurors are taking in. But what's clear is that officers who were on the scene that night seem to be holding a pretty strong line in support of Jason Van Dyke.

    Now, the other experts that were brought in, FBI experts, force — use of force experts, say that the shooting wasn't justified. They went through a process of showing how long it takes to fire 16 shots from the type of gun Jason Van Dyke was carrying that evening, and that it is a deliberate motion. You have to take time to fire each shot.

    So you have really two different law enforcement groups testifying against each other. And where the jury decides, we will have to wait and see.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    And we take a step back here and note this trial was years in the making. A lot of people are paying very close attention to it.

    One official actually called this a watershed moment for the city. Do you agree with that?

  • Jennifer White:

    It's hard to call it a watershed moment, because we're not — we're not through it yet.

    Right now, the city of Chicago is in the process of attaining a consent decree that would reform Chicago police, the Chicago Police Department, and be enforced by a federal judge.

    This feels like a story that's still very much in motion. I think, once the verdict comes down, there will be a sense for people in the city that either justice was done or justice wasn't done. And, depending upon where you stand, you will have that sense.

    But it feels like the story is still very much in motion. The buildup to this moment was decades in the making. I don't think that a single moment is going to resolve the tension between CPD and Chicago's black communities.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Well, towards that point, we're also having this conversation, and this trial is unfolding against the national backdrop, right, of a lot of other high-profile police shootings in which those officers were either acquitted or there were mistrials in several other states across the country, with the recent exceptions, of course. There was the Dallas case last week, right?

    I wonder how you think Chicago fits into that larger picture. We're talking about it city where we mentioned earlier no Chicago police officer has been convicted of murder for an on-duty shooting since 1970. Is Chicago different in some way?

  • Jennifer White:

    I don't think Chicago is different.

    I do think that Chicago is in the spotlight right now, however. The current administration talks a lot about Chicago, and it talks a lot about gun violence in the city. And, unfortunately, this binary has been created that police cannot police unless they're able to police freely.

    And then you have community members who are saying, no, police are accountable to us. And so the moment we're in right now, it feels like Chicago becomes a case study for whether or not police can effectively do their jobs, but also bear accountability to the communities they serve.

    That's all wrapped up in this verdict. It's all wrapped up in the consent decree. But, as I said before, this story is playing out. I think it's going to play out over the weeks and months and years to come.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    And just less than a minute left here, I want to you, of course, the trial continues.

    Are we going to hear from Officer Van Dyke himself? Is he expected to testify?

  • Jennifer White:

    We don't know.

    The defense hasn't said whether or not he will take the stand. They have said they expect to call witnesses into next week, which is longer than many of us were expecting. But we will see if that plays out. Whether or not Jason Van Dyke will take the stand, we will have to wait and see.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    We will wait and see.

    And, of course, you will continue to follow it on your podcast. It's called "16 Shots."

    Jennifer White of WBEZ, thank you for your time.

  • Jennifer White:

    Thank you.

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