Jason Van Dyke was convicted in October of second-degree murder and 16 counts of aggravated battery. He faces at least several years in prison, if not decades.
Because Illinois judges are typically required to sentence defendants for the most serious crime of which they are convicted, the hearing began with arguments about the severity of the offenses, as governed by the state’s complex guidelines. Judge Vincent Gaughan’s decision on that point will help determine the sentence.
The defense wants Van Dyke to be sentenced for the second-degree murder charge, partly because it carries a shorter mandatory minimum prison term of four years. Prosecutors want the judge to focus on the 16 aggravated battery counts because each one carries a mandatory minimum prison term of six years, and sentences for each count may have to be served consecutively instead of at the same time.
The 40-year-old Van Dyke arrived wearing a yellow jail jumpsuit and being guarded by sheriff’s deputies.
The proceedings were bound to be emotional. Van Dyke’s wife and young daughters, who pleaded for leniency in letters submitted to the judge, will make statements. Court officials do not know if McDonald’s mother, who has remained silent ever since her son’s Oct. 20, 2014, death, will speak.
On Thursday, a different judge acquitted three officers accused of trying to conceal what happened to protect Van Dyke, who was the first Chicago officer found guilty in an on-duty shooting in a half century and probably the first ever in the shooting of an African-American.
Cook County Judge Domenica Stephenson cleared former officer Joseph Walsh, former detective David March and officer Thomas Gaffney on charges of obstruction of justice, official misconduct and conspiracy.
The verdict “means that if you are a police officer, you can lie, cheat and steal,” said a shaken Rev. Marvin Hunter, McDonald’s great uncle.
Stephenson accepted the argument that jurors in the Van Dyke case rejected: that the video that sparked protests and a federal investigation of the police force was just one perspective of the events that unfolded on the South Side.
The judge said the video showed only one viewpoint of the confrontation between Van Dyke and the teen armed with a small knife. She found no indication the officers tried to hide evidence or made little effort to talk to witnesses.
“The evidence shows just the opposite,” she said. She singled out how they preserved the graphic video at the heart of the case.
Prosecutor Ron Safer tried to put a positive spin on the verdict.
“This case was a case where the code of silence was on trial,” he said, referring to the long tradition that officers do not report wrongdoing by their colleagues. “The next officer is going to think twice about filing a false police report. Do they want to go through this?”
Special prosecutor Patricia Brown Holmes said she hoped the verdict would not make officers reluctant to come forward when they see misconduct. Her key witness, officer Dora Fontaine, described how she had become a pariah in the department and was called a “rat” by fellow officers.
The judge in her ruling rejected prosecution arguments that the video demonstrated officers were lying when they described McDonald as moving even after he was shot.
“An officer could have reasonably believed an attack was imminent,” she said. “It was borne out in the video that McDonald continued to move after he fell to the ground” and refused to relinquish a knife.
The video appeared to show the teen collapsing in a heap after the first few shots and moving in large part because bullets kept striking his body for 10 more seconds.
The judge said it’s not unusual for two witnesses to describe events in starkly different ways. “It does not necessarily mean that one is lying,” she said.
The judge also noted several times that the “vantage point” of various officers who witnessed the shooting were “completely different.” That could explain why their accounts did not sync with what millions of people saw in the video.
Both Van Dyke’s trial and that of the three other officers hinged on the video, which showed Van Dyke opening fire within seconds of getting out of his police SUV and continuing to shoot the 17-year-old while he was lying on the street. Police were responding to a report of a male who was breaking into trucks and stealing radios on the city’s South Side.
Prosecutors alleged that Gaffney, March and Walsh, who was Van Dyke’s partner, submitted false reports to try to prevent or shape any criminal investigation of the shooting. Among other things, they said the officers falsely claimed that Van Dyke shot McDonald after McDonald aggressively swung the knife at police and that he kept shooting the teen because McDonald was trying to get up still armed with the knife.
Attorneys for the three men used the same strategy that the defense used at Van Dyke’s trial by placing all the blame on McDonald.
It was McDonald’s refusal to drop the knife and other threatening actions that “caused these officers to see what they saw,” March’s attorney, James McKay, told the court. “This is a case about law and order (and) about Laquan McDonald not following any laws that night.”
City Hall released the video to the public in November 2015 — 13 months after the shooting — and acted only because a judge ordered it to do so. The charges against Van Dyke were not announced until the day of the video’s release.
The case cost Van Dyke and the police superintendent their jobs and was widely seen as the reason the county’s top prosecutor was voted out of office a few months later. It was also thought to be a major factor in Mayor Rahm Emmanuel’s decision not to seek a third term.
The accusations triggered a federal investigation, resulting in a blistering report that found Chicago officers routinely used excessive force and violated the rights of residents, particularly minorities. The city implemented a new policy that requires video of fatal police shootings to be released within 60 days, accelerated a program to equip all officers with body cameras and adopted other reforms to change the way police shootings are investigated.