Former Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke will spend 81 months in prison for the murder of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald.
The sentencing comes two months after a jury convicted Van Dyke of second-degree murder, along with 16 counts of aggravated battery with a firearm for the Oct. 20, 2014 incident. He was also found not guilty on an official misconduct charge.
“I expect 100 percent of people to be disappointed with my decision today,” Cook County Judge Vincent Gaughan said in court Friday, explaining why he only sentenced Van Dyke for second-degree murder, avoiding the 16 aggravated battery with a firearm counts.
Those 16 counts were merged into the second-degree murder sentence.
At the hearing, prosecutors asked for least 18 to 20 years in prison and defense lawyers called for their client to get only probation, standing by his innocence.
“Every one of those wounds that were subject to the aggravated battery caused death,” Darren O’Brien, one of the attorneys hired to handle Van Dyke’s impending appeal, said Friday in an effort to reduce the the cop’s sentence by “merging” convictions.
Wearing a yellow county jumpsuit, Van Dyke testified at his hearing, along with his wife, Tiffany, and one of their daughters.
“It was due to my actions that the McDonald family has suffered pain,” Van Dyke said. “No one wants to take someone’s life, even in defense of their own. It is a decision that stays with you forever.”
He added: “Oct. 20, 2014, will always be the worst day of my life.”
Laquan McDonald’s great uncle, Rev. Marvin Hunter, sat on the other side of the courtroom with family and testified on behalf of the 17-year-old. McDonald’s mother, Tina Hunter, was not present.
“I am a 17-year-old boy. I'm a victim of murder,” Rev. Hunter said in his victim statement on Friday, which was written from McDonald’s point on view. “I am unable to speak with my own voice... because of a CPD officer named Jason Van Dyke who decided he would become judge, jury and executioner.”
The statement continued: “In the short time of my life I have worked hard to correct the mistakes that I've made. But in a matter of six seconds, [Van Dyke] took 16 shots and ended the possibility of this happening forever.”
Kaylee Van Dyke, the cop’s 17-year-old daughter, testified as a mitigating witness on Friday, reading the letter she wrote for the judge earlier this week—one of nearly 200 letters of support filed by the defense.
“Over the last three years, I have been bullied, teased, picked on, you name it, all because my dad did his job,” she said, wiping her eyes with a tissue. “Now that he is gone I feel as if I'm left with nothing. Bring him home.”
The verdict came nearly four years to the day after graphic dash-cam footage showed the 40-year-old cop shooting McDonald 16 times in less than 14 seconds—which vastly differed from Van Dyke’s original claim that he shot the 17-year-old in self-defense.
“The shots were 16 separate and distinct acts,” as Van Dyke repeatedly “assessed and shot” McDonald,” Special Prosecutor Joseph McMahon said in court Friday.
Video of the shooting, released 13 months after the incident, sparked widespread protests across the country and prompted investigators to charge the former cop with six counts of first-degree murder—to which he pleaded not guilty.
Four murder counts were dropped ahead of the trial, however, and prosecutors announced to the jury in their October closing arguments that they would accept a second-degree murder charge—which the panel of eight woman and four men ultimately decided on.
During the three-week trial, Van Dyke’s defense team argued the officer was wrongly charged because he acted out of self-defense after seeing McDonald “lunging” toward him with a knife.
Initial police reports stood by this defense, stating Van Dyke has fired his weapon out of self-defense and that the shooting was justified since McDonald had been “behaving erratically” when walking down the street, holding a folding knife with a three-inch blade.
That report, however, did not match up with the video.
“The government wants you to look at just the videotape, that we’ve probably all seen hundreds of times. They want you to look at the final chapter without reading the rest of the book,” defense attorney Daniel Herbert, also implied the black teenager was on a “wild rampage” the night he died. “Race had absolutely nothing to do with this, and there will be no evidence whatsoever to suggest race was a factor.”
The three police officers that corroborated Van Dyke’s story—retired Chicago police officers David March and Joseph Walsh, along with Thomas Gaffney, who is currently suspended without pay—were acquitted Thursday of covering up details of the shooting and falsifying their police report on Thursday.
“There is no evidence in any way shape or form that the officers intentionally put errors in the report,” Cook County Judge Domenica Stephenson said in his ruling.
Marvin Hunter, McDonald's great-uncle, told reporters on Thursday the acquittal proved the “entire Cook County criminal justice system is corrupt.”
“This is not justice,” he said. “To say that these men are not guilty is to say Jason Van Dyke is not guilty.”
In Van Dyke’s trial, however, the jury found there were errors in the report after witness testimony from other officers on the scene contradicted its account.
Officer Joseph McElligott, who spotted the 17-year-old after a truck driver called 911 that night to report someone breaking into a car, requested backup after pursuing McDonald on foot for a couple of blocks, but he never believed he or his partner were in danger.
“We were trying to buy time to get a Taser,” McElligott said in court. “We were just trying to be patient.”
Van Dyke and his partner arrived soon after, along with the Chicago Police Taser unit, and immediately got out of his vehicle, McMahon said in court.
“Six seconds later, he pulls his trigger for the first time and starts to shoot Laquan McDonald,” McMahon recounted, explaining to jurors during the trial how McDonald then fell to the ground less than two seconds after Van Dyke fired his weapon.
“In total, this defendant decides to shoot Laquan McDonald not once, not twice, but three, four, five, six, seven, eight—he’s only halfway done—nine, ten, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16 times,” the attorney said.
In court on Friday, McMahon called five men to testify against Van Dyke, each detailing a violent and aggressive run-in with the Chicago cop while in their vehicles.
One of the witnesses, Edward Nance, 49, was reportedly emotional on the stand as he explained how, in 2009, he was pulled over by Van Dyke while driving to pick up his cousin.
“I can’t sleep at night,” he said, referring to the altercation.
Nance testified that Van Dyke approached his car and told him to “open the motherfucking door” twice before opening the door himself and pulling Nance out of the vehicle.
Once out of the car, Van Dyke allegedly threw Nance, while handcuffed, onto the floor of the backseat of his squad car.
“I didn't know what happened to my arms, but it hurt very bad. I couldn't move nothing,” Nance said in court on Friday, to which Van Dyke allegedly told him, “Shut up and lay down!"
Nance alleged that he was later released and walked home, holding a “no-front license plate” citation that was eventually dropped.
The altercation caused injuries that ended his career as a sports referee, Nance testified. He later added that he sued the city and received a $350,000 payout for his injuries.
“It hurts when I lift my arms over my shoulder,” he said. “I’m in constant pain every day.”