A judge sentenced Jason Van Dyke, the former Chicago police officer convicted of second-degree murder for killing Laquan McDonald, to more than six years behind bars on Friday.
The sentence was a coda to a case that has gripped Chicago for years and reverberated across the country’s third-largest city, prompting changes at the police department, forcing public officials from their jobs and spurring a sweeping federal investigation.
Van Dyke, who is white, was sentenced about three months after he was convicted of multiple charges for fatally shooting McDonald, a black 17-year-old holding a knife, in October 2014. The punishment was handed down just a day after three other Chicago police officers were acquitted after being accused of helping cover up what happened.
Judge Vincent Gaughan sentenced Van Dyke to 81 months — or six years and nine months — on the second-degree conviction. Prosecutors had asked that Van Dyke be sentenced for up to two decades, while the former officer’s attorneys argued for probation.
McDonald’s death on Chicago’s Southwest Side drew relatively little notice outside the region until November 2015, when authorities released video footage capturing the shooting. The recording was made public at a time of intense focus on how police officers use force, an issue that galvanized a nationwide protest movement leading to calls for reforms.
Authorities initially said McDonald lunged at police officers. The dashboard camera recording made public after a court order showed McDonald was moving away when Van Dyke opened fire, hitting the teenager 16 times. That became a refrain among demonstrators in Chicago as they protested following the video’s release and many times afterward, repeatedly chanting “16 shots” as they marched on the city’s streets.
Van Dyke was arrested and charged the day the video was made public. He later testified that he feared for his life when approaching McDonald, and Van Dyke’s attorneys argued that the teenager would have lived if he dropped his knife as police ordered. An autopsy found that McDonald had PCP in his system when he was killed.
Prosecutors said Van Dyke, 40, exaggerated the threat posed by McDonald, noted that the officer could not have known about the PCP when he pulled the trigger and said the fatal shooting was not justified.
After Gaughan sentenced Van Dyke, prosecutors said there was nothing to celebrate Friday, calling the shooting “a travesty for so many people.”
Shortly before he was sentenced, Van Dyke briefly addressed the court. Quietly reading from prepared remarks, he called the day of the shooting “the worst day of my life.”
During the day-long hearing, prosecutors called witnesses who said Van Dyke mistreated them when he was an officer, including one who accused him of shouting racial slurs during a traffic stop. The Rev. Marvin Hunter, McDonald’s great uncle, delivered a victim impact statement written in what he said was the 17-year-old’s voice.
“I’m a 17-year-old boy,” Hunter read. “I’m a victim of murder . . . I am unable to speak with my own voice.”
Hunter described Van Dyke as an officer “who decided that he would become judge, jury and executioner.” He detailed the pain the shooting had caused McDonald’s family, saying the former police officer had shown “disregard for the life of a young black man.” A bearded and impassive Van Dyke watched him speak, not visibly reacting when Hunter said the former officer had destroyed his own family’s life as well as that of McDonald’s.
Defense attorneys, in turn, called witnesses to vouch for Van Dyke and his character. A retired Chicago officer praised Van Dyke as a good officer, a good colleague and a “darn nice guy,” adding: “Proud to know him.” Dean Angelo Sr., former president of the Chicago Fraternal Order of Police, who hired Van Dyke after he was charged, defended the ex-officer for his actions the night of the shooting and as a person.
“He’s not the monster that people have made him out to be in the media and political circles,” Angelo said in court. “He’s a big, gentle kid. . . . He’s a hard worker, he’s dedicated, he’s a good dad.”
In the day’s most emotional testimony, Tiffany Van Dyke’s eyes welled up and her voice faltered as she described her biggest fear: That someone would kill her husband of nearly 17 years. She described praying for McDonald’s family, calling the shooting a tragedy and saying her husband was only “doing his job.” She also said the shooting’s aftermath has devastated their daughters, ages 12 and 17, and worried about their father being kept away from them.
“They’re torn apart,” said Tiffany Van Dyke. “My children don’t sleep, they don’t eat. They have nightmares. They don’t feel safe in our own home. . . . My children have paid the price. They’ve lost their father.”
The shooting’s fallout has been unusually far-reaching, extending into politics and the upper ranks of law enforcement. After the video was released, Mayor Rahm Emanuel (D) pushed out his police superintendent and voters ousted the prosecutor who waited a year to charge Van Dyke in the case. The police department announced numerous reforms and pledged to increase transparency. The Justice Department launched a civil rights investigation into the Chicago police force and concluded in a blistering report that the department violates residents’ constitutional rights.
In a statement, Emanuel and Eddie Johnson, the Chicago police superintendent, said the sentence was “the end of a court case” but that “our work to bring lasting reform” to the city’s police would go on.
Another unusual element of the case: Van Dyke’s conviction in October on charges of second-degree murder and aggravated battery with a firearm. Police officers are rarely convicted of shooting and killing people, even in cases with graphic video footage. Case after case involving footage of such shootings — whether in the Minneapolis suburbs, Cincinnati or North Charleston, S.C. — have given way to outrage and prosecutions but not convictions.
Underscoring that point, a day before Van Dyke was sentenced, a Cook County judge acquitted three Chicago police officers who had been charged with conspiring to cover up the circumstances of McDonald’s death. In a lengthy ruling, Associate Judge Domenica A. Stephenson dismissed the allegations of a conspiracy, saying prosecutors failed to provide evidence that the officers and Van Dyke sought to cover up their actions, and she deemed other allegations speculative.
Stephenson also offered what appeared to be a defense of Van Dyke, writing that McDonald was “an armed offender who ignored verbal commands to drop his knife for several blocks” and stating that widely seen video footage from the scene does not show the officer’s vantage point.
“Only the officers involved in the incident know what their belief was at the time of the incident,” Stephenson wrote. “We cannot now view the actions of the officers with the benefit of hindsight as to what they should have believed.”