CHICAGO — The white police officer who fatally shot a black teenager 16 times was either traumatized by fear when he arrived at the scene, or had brazenly decided even before his arrival to use deadly force and later inflated the threat to cover up his actions.
The two conflicting portrayals of Jason Van Dyke emerged during a trial that is widely perceived as a watershed moment for police reform in this city. The shooting triggered a U.S. Justice Department probe of the police department, which found systemic mistreatment of black and Hispanic residents of Chicago’s poorest areas.
Closing arguments ended Thursday after nearly three weeks of testimony, and many residents are worried that an acquittal could trigger violent demonstrations. Van Dyke is charged with murder in the shooting of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald on Oct. 20, 2014.
Before Van Dyke got to the scene on the city’s Southwest Side that night, McDonald was slowly and erratically walking down a street, a small knife in hand, as Officer Joseph McElligott followed on foot and a second officer trailed in a cruiser. McElligott testified early in the trial that he felt safe and was waiting for the arrival of another cruiser with a stun gun that would be used to subdue the teen.
In her closing argument, assistant special prosecutor Jody Gleason said McDonald’s killing was never justified.
“This case has been about exaggerating the threat and hiding behind the police shield,” she told jurors. She pulled apart the defense strategy, saying that Van Dyke had no reason to know that McDonald had PCP in his system. “How can anything about this troubled life have possibly impacted the defendant when he made the decision to shoot?” she said.
Gleason relied on video evidence and autopsy photographs that showed the entry points of each bullet into McDonald’s body. The officer, she said, intended to kill McDonald. “The last moments of his life are important. [Van Dyke] riddled his body with bullet after bullet. Every shot matters.”
Defense attorneys argued that McDonald died by the first or second shot, not all 16. They spent the majority of the trial portraying Van Dyke as an officer genuinely afraid for his life. McDonald was solely responsible for his own death, attorney Dan Herbert told jurors.
At any point, he said, “had Laquan dropped that knife, he would be here today.”
Herbert also stressed that the video of the killing lacked context, and disputed that it showed McDonald veering away from Van Dyke before shots were fired. “It doesn’t show he was walking away. He changed his behavior from running away to a slow skip. Why? [McDonald was] prepared to attack. And even if he wasn’t, it’s reasonable that that’s what Jason would have believed,” Herbert said.
Van Dyke testified for 90 minutes Tuesday. He added to his defense team’s portrayal of McDonald, who had been breaking into vehicles in a truck yard when police were first called. “His face had no expression. His eyes were just bugging out of his head. He had these huge white eyes,” he said.
The officer’s exchange with prosecutors was often tense. His testimony describing McDonald’s actions contradicted both the animated video his defense created to show the confrontation from his angle and the police dash-cam video recorded from behind the teen’s back.
Van Dyke said McDonald raised the knife above his shoulder even though both videos showed that did not happen. He conceded that he was wrong in telling detectives after the shooting that he stepped back when McDonald approached him. In fact, the dash-cam video showed him advancing.
The 40-year-old Van Dyke also testified that he continued to fire shots after the teenager fell to the ground because he could see him attempting to stand. “I could see him start to push with his left hand off the ground,” he said.
But the prosecutor dismissed his account. “None of that happened,” Gleason told jurors Thursday. “He made it up to justify the use of deadly force.”
Protesters have massed outside the entrance to the George N. Leighton Criminal Courthouse since the trial’s opening. Several activists are calling for an economic boycott of downtown businesses if Van Dyke is acquitted.
“Nobody go to work. Nobody go to school. Nobody go shopping,” the Rev. Michael Pfleger, a Catholic priest on Chicago’s South Side, said Tuesday.
Police are preparing for potential violence, with a 150-page contingency plan for mobilizing after the verdict. Some businesses are making their own plans for security, with employees questioning whether to work from home in case of an acquittal.
Van Dyke, who is charged with first-degree murder and other counts, could face life in prison if convicted of murder.
Mark Guarino was the Midwest bureau chief for the Christian Science Monitor. He is now a freelancer and a frequent contributor to The Washington Post.