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Rulings in Laquan McDonald cases leave police reformers questioning if progress has been made

Jason Van Dyke and Attorney Dan Herbert

Chicago police Officer Jason Van Dyke was tried and convicted in 2018 in the 2014 shooting death of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald. (Chicago Tribune)

By Megan Crepeau, Christy Gutowski, Jason Meisner and Stacy St. ClairContact Reporters
Chicago Tribune

January 19, 2019

By any definition, the criminal cases connected to Laquan McDonald’s murder have been watershed moments for a city with a decadeslong history of police abuses.

Yet on back-to-back days last week at Cook County’s main criminal courthouse, many reform advocates were left disappointed and wondering if any real progress has been made.

In one courtroom Friday, a judge sentenced Chicago police Officer Jason Van Dyke to just under seven years in prison for killing 17-year-old McDonald, less than half of what prosecutors had sought. He could be released in as soon as three years.

A day earlier, a different judge acquitted three of Van Dyke’s fellow officers of charges alleging a cover-up of McDonald’s shooting. Instead, the judge issued a staunch endorsement of the officers’ actions that night, calling the black teen an erratic, armed assailant who ignored commands to drop a small knife.

To some, the rulings threaten to deepen the divisions brought to the fore by the court-ordered release of the infamous police dashboard camera video showing Van Dyke firing 16 shots at McDonald as he walked down Pulaski Road. After Van Dyke was sentenced Friday evening, protesters trailed his wife and school-aged daughters out of the courthouse jeering and chanting “16 shots” in reference to the number of bullets that struck McDonald.

“It’s going to take a lot to repair the relationship with law enforcement — not just in Chicago, but across our country — and communities of color,” said special prosecutor Joseph McMahon, who led the prosecution of Van Dyke. “We’re not going to fix it with one case. We were not going to fix it with one sentence. But we’re headed in the right direction.”

Whatever the outcomes, the cases were each historic in their own way. Van Dyke was the first Chicago police officer to be convicted of murder in an on-duty shooting in half a century. And his colleagues in the conspiracy case were believed to be the first officers ever charged with covering up a police-involved shooting.

McDonald’s great-uncle, the Rev. Marvin Hunter, expressed his family’s disappointment Friday at Van Dyke’s relatively light sentence, saying it reduced McDonald to a “second-class” citizen. Hunter, though, saw progress in the fact that a Chicago police officer is going to prison for unjustifiably shooting a black teen.

“If they sentenced him to one minute, it’s a victory,” he told reporters in the lobby of the Leighton Criminal Court Building. “It sends a strong message to unjust police officers that you can and will go to jail if you’re caught lying, if you’re caught breaking the law.”

‘16 Crocks’

Many activists who spoke after the marathon seven-hour sentencing hearing described Van Dyke’s punishment as lenient, particularly considering the graphic video depicting the white officer continuing to shoot McDonald after fell to the street.

“He deserves to spend the rest of his life behind bars,” said William Calloway, who fought to get the dashcam video released and who is running for city alderman. “That’s a slap in the face to us and a slap on the wrist for him.”

Activists in Chicago

Activist William Calloway reacts after Judge Vincent Gaughan sentenced former Chicago police Officer Jason Van Dyke at the Leighton Criminal Court Building in Chicago on Jan. 18, 2019. (Zbigniew Bzdak/Chicago Tribune)

Still, Calloway said the outcome of the case is cause for celebration.

“African-Americans have been getting shot in this city disproportionately for decades,” he said. “We finally held one (officer) accountable. He’s a convicted murderer and will never be a police officer again.”

A jury convicted Van Dyke of second-degree murder and 16 counts of aggravated battery following a four-week trial last fall. The verdict won praise from community activists and black leaders, many of whom had expressed doubts as to whether a white cop would ever be held accountable for killing an African-American teen.

Those same activists sat open-mouthed Thursday as Associate Judge Domenica Stephenson acquitted three other officers accused of lying about the circumstances surrounding the shooting. In shredding the prosecution’s case, she offered a staunch hourlong defense of the Police Department’s actions that night — including suggestions that Van Dyke could have reasonably believed the teen was about to attack him.

Her decision drew praise from the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 7, the union that represents rank-and-file officers and has been outspoken in its defense of the indicted officers. Union leadership mocked the charges brought against retired Detective David March, former patrolman Joseph Walsh and Officer Thomas Gaffney, calling the charges “trumped up.”

“16 Crocks,” read one post-acquittal tweet from FOP Vice President Martin Preib.

Stephenson’s 28-page ruling also sparked outrage across segments of the city as the American Civil Liberties Union, religious leaders and some mayoral candidates blasted her decision. There were calls for protests outside the courthouse Friday, but none materialized amid a threatened snowstorm.

“I’m not a lawyer, but I know the difference between right and wrong,” the Rev. Leon Finney of Chicago’s Metropolitan Apostolic Community Church told reporters after the acquittals. “Right and justice was not served.”

The court-ordered release of the video more than a year after the October 2014 shooting led to months of protests and political upheaval, and prompted a federal investigation of the Police Department that concluded officers routinely violated the civil rights of minorities.

That tension was emphasized during emotional testimony from four African-American men during sentencing Friday. The witnesses each said Van Dyke verbally or physically abused them after what prosecutors said should have been routine, uneventful traffic stops.

Scathing attack by judge

While Van Dyke’s trial centered on his actions on the night of the shooting, the conspiracy case has been seen as a referendum on a so-called code of silence within the Police Department designed to protect fellow officers from accountability for wrongdoing.

“That blue code of silence isn’t just with the Chicago Police Department,” Calloway said. “It expands to the judicial system, and this is an example of that.”

Stephenson’s ruling demonstrated the difficulties in trying to prove criminal charges involving the code of silence, requiring evidence that the officers conspired together to hide misconduct by an officer.

“Look, there was no smoking gun in this case,” veteran criminal-defense attorney Steven Greenberg said. “There’s a reason why perjury and obstruction of justice cases are rarely charged. They’re very hard to prove.”

Terry Ekl, also a veteran criminal-defense attorney who worked as Cook County prosecutor in the 1970s, said bringing such a case against Chicago cops would have been unimaginable back then.

“Never, never would have happened,” he said. “Even though the three officers were found not guilty in the cover-up part of it, at least they were prosecuted, and that was a good thing. I’m not passing judgment on (Judge Stephenson’s) decision, but it was a good thing they were prosecuted. … I think that those are all advances in the system.”

While many legal experts predicted the three officers would be acquitted in the conspiracy case, few expected Stephenson’s scathing attack of the prosecution and its witnesses. The judge, for example, pulverized the crucial testimony of a Chicago police officer who alleged her statements about the shooting were falsified — and said she faced retribution from colleagues for coming forward.

She also dismissed the account of a civilian eyewitness who said he was shooed away from the shooting scene. Jose Torres, who was driving his son to the hospital when he saw the shooting from a few car-lengths away on Pulaski Road, testified in both trials that he never saw McDonald make an aggressive move toward the police and was so shocked at the amount of shots he cursed in his car.

After seeing a police union spokesman characterize the shooting as justified in a news report, Torres reached out to the city’s police oversight agency to share what he saw. He later spoke to FBI as well.

Still, Stephenson derided Torres for not contacting the Chicago police with his account. She also concluded that Torres was farther away from the shooting than he had indicated on the witness stand, while finding credible the details in his testimony that matched the officers’ accounts.

Torres fired back after the acquittals, accusing Stephenson of having a conflict of interest in the case because she had worked closely with March’s attorney, James McKay, when both were Cook County assistant state’s attorneys.

“I believe that the case was tainted from the beginning,” Torres told the Chicago Tribune. “The judge and one of the defense attorneys were formal colleagues. One of them should have recused themselves.”

Other also have questioned whether Stephenson’s background as a prosecutor makes her biased toward the police — a common complaint about judges at the courthouse at 26th Street and California Avenue. Indeed, it was the latest in a string of high-profile trials in which Chicago police officers accused of wrongdoing were cleared by judges at the courthouse.

In 2015, Judge Diane Gordon Cannon cleared Cmdr. Glenn Evans of charges he shoved his gun down a man’s throat and threatened to kill him. The judge largely discounted seemingly strong evidence showing the man’s DNA on Evans’ gun.

That same year, Detective Dante Servin was acquitted by Judge Dennis Porter of all charges in an off-duty, late-night shooting in which he opened fire after alleging a man made a threatening motion at him with an object he took to be a gun, only to fatally shoot Rekia Boyd, an innocent young woman standing nearby. The object turned out to be a cellphone, authorities said.

Stephenson’s ruling likely will make prosecutors think twice before charging police officers with wrongdoing, legal experts said.

“There’s no question in my mind that her message to prosecutors is don’t bring these cases anymore,” said attorney Antonio Romanucci, who has won landmark civil cases involving police misconduct. “That does have a chilling effect and becomes part of the code of silence.”

Romanucci expressed even greater disbelief after Van Dyke’s sentencing, saying the punishment sent a message that officers are treated differently than others in the legal system.

“It’s time again now for the community to speak up and rally,” he said.

Jason Van Dyke and Attorney Dan Herbert

Former Chicago police Officer Jason Van Dyke and his attorney Daniel Herbert listen to the proceedings during Van Dyke’s sentencing hearing at the Leighton Criminal Court Building on Jan. 18, 2019, in Chicago. (Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune)

Van Dyke heartened by sentence

Before announcing his sentence, Judge Vincent Gaughan predicted “100 percent” of the courtroom would be disappointed with his decision and warned against any outbursts. Prosecutors had asked for 18 to 20 years, while the defense sought probation.

In a key decision, Gaughan ruled that common sense dictated that second-degree murder, not aggravated battery, was the more serious offense. Under Illinois law, however, second-degree murder can mean less time in prison, and only 50 percent of the sentence being required to be served, compared with 85 percent for aggravated batteries.

The veteran jurist called the shooting “senseless” before sentencing Van Dyke to six years and nine months in prison. With good behavior, the former officer could be released in three years.

He would be 43.

Ekl, who sued the Police Department in the first successful code of silence case, said he thought Gaughan reached a fair decision.

“I’m not sure that there is any message that any of us can really put our finger on,” he said. “I know there are people who thought he should have gotten more and, of course, police officers and others in the city who thought he should have been found not guilty. But I think the judge really did an excellent job in handling the trial, and I think the sentence was appropriate.”

Van Dyke’s lawyer, Daniel Herbert, said a grateful Van Dyke was heartened by the judge’s sentence. He will still have to go to prison and live the rest of his life as a convicted felon, but he will be young enough to rebuild his life and celebrate major milestones in his daughters’ lives.

The defense was so gratified by the outcome, Herbert said they may not appeal and run the risk of being re-sentenced to a lengthier prison term.

“He truly felt great,” Herbert said. “He was not just relieved, he was happy. It’s the first time I’ve seen the guy honestly since this whole ordeal started where he was happy. He’s certainly not happy about going to jail. He’s certainly not happy about missing his family. But he’s happy about the prospect of life ahead of him.”

McMahon also had a positive take on the sentence, even though he sought 18 to 20 years in prison. Justice had been served, he said.

“I understand the sentence is not exactly what the McDonald and Hunter families wanted,” he said. “But the sentence, like the verdict, does hold the defendant accountable.”

To that end, McDonald’s family left the courthouse insisting that McDonald — a protective big brother, high school student and part-time construction worker whose last paycheck was used to buy his funeral clothes — had not died in vain.

“This is a historic moment for us,” said Hunter, the great-uncle and family patriarch. “I know a lot of people are angry, but this is a victory. We have a million miles to go, but it must start with a first step. And we took that first step today.”

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