It has been almost 50 years since a Cook County jury convicted a Chicago police officer of first-degree murder. But when the eight women and four men who will decide the fate of Jason Van Dyke retire to the jury room and begin their deliberations, they will be left with few choices.
In total, Van Dyke faces 19 counts against him in connection with the 2014 killing of Laquan McDonald.
They include two counts of first-degree murder and one count of official misconduct. There are also 16 counts of aggravated battery, one for each shot fired at the 17-year-old on Oct. 20.
There were initially six counts of first-degree murder against Van Dyke, but four were dropped before the trial began.
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The current charges break down as follows:
- Murder /Intent to Kill/Injure with Firearm (45 years to Life)
- Murder/Strong Probabilty Kill/Injure Firearm (45 years to life)
- 16 counts of Aggravated Battery/Discharge Firearm (6 to 30 years- must serve 85 percent)
- Official Misconduct/Forbidden Act (2 to 5 years)
In closing arguments, prosecutors revealed that jurors can deliberate a lesser charge of second-degree murder as well. That holds a penalty of between four and 20 years in prison, though a four-year probation term is possible instead of prison.
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What the Jury Could Decide
Jurors will have to make a possibly painful decision about whether Van Dyke’s actions rose to the level of murder, something other juries around the country have found difficult to do. If convicted, Van Dyke could face up to life in prison.
If jurors find him not guilty on the first-degree murder charges, their next and more lenient option would be to convict the 13-year CPD veteran of the lesser charges of aggravated battery.
They could also choose to convict on some charges and not on others. Such a choice relieves some of the burden on jurors, but still gives prosecutors a conviction that could result in significant jail time for Van Dyke.
If the jury cannot agree on a verdict, they will tell the judge who will likely tell them to try again before he declares a mistrial. If that happens, the prosecution has the option to re-file some or all of the charges against Van Dyke. A new jury will be picked and a second trial will be held.
The jury also could find Van Dyke not guilty on all charges - a complete acquittal. If that happens, he will walk free.
The Trial So Far
Defense attorney Dan Herbert is taking a risk by relying on 12 men and women to decide to Van Dyke’s fate. He could have bypassed a jury entirely and chosen a bench trial where only the judge hears the evidence and makes the ruling. That would have minimized the emotional impact of seeing the teenager shot 16 times on dash-cam video, images that have been repeated over and over again during the trial.
Van Dyke’s defense relies on specific Illinois law that gives peace officers wide latitude on the use of deadly force. A bench trial would have left that legal decision solely in the hands of a judge.
The decisions about a jury trial created much of the drama that preceded the first testimony. Judge Vincent Gaughan waited until the very last minute, after a Cook County jury had been selected, to rule on a defense motion to move the trial out of Chicago. His decision, based on the answers given during the jury selection process, set the stage for a high-profile trial in Chicago. While defense attorneys argued that Van Dyke deserved a fair trial by a jury of his peers, the prosecution said the "community also deserves" a fair trial that it could observe and monitor.
In preparation for the trial, the large parkways in front of the courthouse at 26th and California were fenced off and set aside for protesters. For the most part, those protests have failed to materialize. Trial observers say there may be good reason for that.
In the wake of the McDonald shooting video being made public, protesters made a number of demands of the city. Much of what they called for has since come to pass. Police Supt. Garry McCarthy was fired by Mayor Rahm Emanuel. State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez has been replaced by Kim Foxx.
In the days before the trial was set to begin, Emanuel announced he would not run for re-election. The justice department has investigated and issued a report on the Chicago Police Department. There is now a consent decree in place that will monitor the department’s behavior. McDonald’s great uncle said actions speak louder than words.
"At the end of the day, show me," Rev. Marvin Hunter said Thursday. "Show me. Let's make this happen for real. Let’s not make it a symbol to calm the people down. Let’s make it a reality."
There have also been repeated requests for calm and reason to prevail no matter what verdict the jury reaches.
The family of Laquan McDonald and the faith community that supports them have called for prayers for justice. Van Dyke supporters and the Fraternal Order of Police have also called for prayers. Will Calloway, the activist who has been at the forefront of the McDonald case, has appealed to Chicago gang members to lay down their guns and pick up his call for social justice.
Finally, the Attorney General’s office has scheduled a town hall meeting on the police department consent decree at the church of McDonald’s great uncle. Community activists and Cardinal Cupich have been invited to attend.
To be safe, however, Chicago police and fire have been planning for the possibility of large protests following the jury’s verdict no matter what they decide.