An attorney for a former Chicago cop charged with killing Laquan McDonald suggested the black teenager was on a “wild rampage” the night he died, and compared his movements to a villain in a horror movie.
Jason Van Dyke, who is white, shot McDonald 16 times as he walked away from police on Oct. 20, 2014. Protests swelled throughout the city one year later after dashcam footage of McDonald’s demise was released after a judge’s order.
Now Van Dyke is on trial for first-degree murder—nearly four years after McDonald was killed. The 40-year-old also faces 16 counts of aggravated battery with a firearm, and one count of official misconduct.
During opening arguments on Monday, defense attorney Daniel Herbert called Van Dyke a “scared police officer” who “acted within his training.” The horrifying police video of McDonald’s death “doesn’t tell the whole story,” Herbert claimed.
Herbert said the defense will present a rival video that supposedly contradicts dashcam footage of McDonald’s final moments.
“Now 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,” Herbert told jurors.
Herbert said his team commissioned a video from Van Dyke’s point of view—recreating the scene using exact measurements and drones. “We can show you the angle recreated from Jason Van Dyke’s perspective,” Herbert said.
McDonald walked down the street slowly and away from the two police officers called to subdue him. “Laquan McDonald was not looking at anybody. When people don’t make eye contact, that’s a sign that you’re dealing with a dangerous person,” Herbert said.
“Think about it like a horror movie that you’ve watched. You see the villain walking down the street … when he stops and he turns and makes eye contact with the victim, then that’s when the music starts playing. That’s what happened here.”
According to Herbert, McDonald was on a “wild rampage through the city” before encountering Van Dyke. Herbert said the decision to shoot McDonald was lawful, and that prosecutors “want people to believe this was a racial issue because that’s more inflammatory.”
“Race had absolutely nothing to do with this, and there will be no evidence whatsoever to suggest race was a factor,” Herbert said.
“What happened to Laquan McDonald was a tragedy. It’s a tragedy, but it’s not a murder.”
But special prosecutor Joseph McMahon disagreed.
He told jurors that Van Dyke saw a “black boy” who had “the audacity to ignore the police,” McMahon said of the fatal encounter.
“We’re here today because the defendant shot Laquan McDonald 16 times when it was completely unnecessary. When the defendant started shooting, Laquan McDonald was walking toward a chain-link fence in a vacant lot, surrounded by five squad cars and 10 fully armed and protected Chicago police officers,” McMahon said.
McMahon described the moments before McDonald was killed—and played the footage of McDonald being felled by a hail of Van Dyke’s bullets. Earlier, McMahon showed the jury the three-inch blade McDonald held in his right hand.
Two Chicago cops began pursuing McDonald that night after a truck driver called 911 about a teen breaking into vehicles in a truck yard. One cop followed McDonald by foot, while another trailed them in a police vehicle.
McDonald hit the windshield of their squad car and popped a front right tire with the knife, McMahon said. One officer, within 10 and 15 feet of the suspect, “[felt] safe enough to continue to walk behind Laquan McDonald after this,” McMahon told jurors.
The officer, Joseph McElligott, testified Monday that he followed McDonald for several blocks, as he and his partner waited for fellow cops to show up with a Taser. McElligott indicated he didn’t believe he or his partner were in danger.
“We were trying to buy time to get a Taser,” McElligott said before adding, “We were just trying to be patient.”
Soon after, as other units responded to the area, Van Dyke and his partner arrived. A Chicago Police taser unit was also called to the scene.
McDonald was walking in the middle of Pulaski Road when Van Dyke exited his vehicle with his gun drawn.
“From the moment [Van Dyke] gets out of his vehicle, six seconds later, he pulls his trigger for the first time and starts to shoot Laquan McDonald,” McMahon said.
McDonald fell to the ground 1.6 seconds after Van Dyke fired his weapon. Over the next 12.5 seconds, Van Dyke pulled the trigger until he emptied the entire clip of the gun, McMahon said.
“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,” McMahon told jurors.
Van Dyke attempted to reload his gun until his partner kicked the knife out of McDonald’s hand and stopped him, McMahon said.
The prosecutor suggested Van Dyke didn’t know about McDonald’s troubled childhood, any medical condition he might have had, or the PCP that was in McDonald’s system at the time of his death.
“What he did know, what he did see, was a black boy walking down the street on Pulaski towards a chain link fence and having the audacity to ignore the police,” McMahon said.
In late August, just a week before his trial began, Van Dyke spoke to the Chicago Tribune about the incident. The former officer insisted he wasn’t racist and was only “doing my job as I was trained as a Chicago police officer.”
Van Dyke, who is Catholic and a father of two daughters, told the Tribune that he prays for McDonald’s family. “I offer up a rosary every day,” he said.
The video of McDonald’s death—which doesn’t have any audio because, as one retired sergeant testified Monday, the microphones were in a glovebox and the batteries were removed or turned upside down—led to the firing of Chicago’s police superintendent and to a Justice Department probe into the city’s policing.
Van Dyke, who was suspended without pay, was hired as a janitor by the police union.
A judge prohibited attorneys from releasing the video of McDonald’s death as part of a $5 million settlement between his family and the city.
The dashcam footage was released after Brandon Smith, a Chicago journalist, filed a Freedom of Information Act request, then sued the city.