CHICAGO — The white Chicago police officer charged with fatally shooting a black teenager nearly four years ago stared stone-faced Monday as a state prosecutor faced a jury and dramatically counted the number of bullets he fired at the youth.
Jason Van Dyke “continues to pull the trigger of his gun over and over until he empties the entire clip. . . . Sixteen gunshots into the defenseless body of Laquan McDonald,” special prosecutor Joseph McMahon said.
That dramatic moment was one of many during the trial’s opening day. Van Dyke, 40, faces multiple first-degree murder charges, and the case is likely to again inflame deep divisions within the city.
In November 2015, after a court ordered the release of a police dashboard-camera video that showed the killing, tensions climbed to heights not seen in decades. Protesters marched for months in downtown streets to call attention to what they perceived as city leaders’ coverup.
Chicago officials had fought the video’s release, which occurred only after Mayor Rahm Emanuel (D) won reelection to a second term and the City Council approved a $5 million settlement with the McDonald family.
Emanuel has denied that he withheld the video for political motives. Two weeks ago, he announced he would not run for a third term.
McDonald’s death has become a watershed moment here following decades of broken relationships between the police and residents. The latter fault officials for spending $709 million on settlements since 2010 instead of taking serious action against police misconduct.
The political fallout extends beyond Emanuel. The case led to the police superintendent’s resignation and voter rejection of the Cook County state’s attorney, who was blasted for waiting a year to bring charges. A U.S. Justice Department investigation forced changes such as mandatory body cameras and tasers for all patrol officers. All dash-cam videos now must be released within 60 days of a police shooting.
Monday morning, the steps of the George N. Leighton Criminal Courthouse were lined with protesters.
“We want a fair trial, and we want him to be convicted,” said Carolyn Ruff, who was demonstrating with others who supporter the Black Lives Matter movement. “You don’t shoot an animal 16 times. How sick is that?”
Inside the courtroom, Van Dyke, who wore a black suit, often closed his eyes or stared straight ahead while listening to prosecutors describe McDonald as a harmless threat. They said that the 17-year-old, who was carrying a short-bladed knife, chose to walk away when he encountered police officers in a truck yard on the city’s southwest side late on Oct. 20, 2014.
Officers had arrived at the truck yard after a trucker called 911 to report that a youth was trying to break into vehicles in the industrial area. When ordered to put up his hands, McDonald began silently walking away as one officer followed on foot. An autopsy showed that the teen had PCP in his system.
Using a combination of surveillance and dash-cam videos, the prosecutors took jurors through that slow-motion pursuit, which ended with McDonald at an intersection. That’s where he encountered Van Dyke.
“During the six seconds, Jason Van Dyke was outside of his squad [car], he had no idea of the autopsy findings that wouldn’t come out for weeks and months later,” the prosecutor said. “What he did see was a black boy walking down Pulaski . . . who had the audacity to ignore an order by the police.”
Officer Joseph McElligott, who was 15 feet behind McDonald on foot, testified that he had called for a stun gun to subdue the teen.
“We were trying to buy time to get a Taser,” he said. “I felt I was protected for the most part.”
No other officer fired a weapon that night.
Van Dyke’s defense team characterized McDonald as a drug-addled teen who “was on a wild rampage through the city,” as attorney Daniel Herbert put it. As he approached Van Dyke’s cruiser, Herbert told jurors, McDonald was a danger to people eating at nearby fast-food restaurants.
He said that the defense will re-create a video showing the killing from Van Dyke’s perspective and call experts who will testify to the “physiological effects that police officers go through when involved in a deadly situation.”
Herbert also denied the government’s contention that race played a role in the shooting. “Race had nothing to do with this,” he said.
Van Dyke has faced numerous complaints, including allegations of unnecessary force and racial slurs, during his 13 years as Chicago police officer. He could face life in prison if convicted.