After serving less than half of his 6 ½ year sentence, convicted murderer, James Van Dyke will go free on February 3rd. The former Chicago Police Officer was convicted in 2018 of second-degree murder and 16 counts of aggravated battery-one count for each bullet that penetrated 17-year-old, Laquan McDonald’s body.
In 2014 Jason Van Dyke claimed he shot Laquan McDonald out of fear for his life. He claims McDonald was lunging towards him with a knife when he shot him. Initial police reports never said how many times McDonald was shot and was eventually ruled “justified” by police. It was also later confirmed that the knife in McDonald’s hand was found folded at the scene. It was not until journalist, Jamie Kalven who was following the case, obtained a copy of the autopsy report that media began to pay attention to discrepancies in the case. The Cook County Medical Examiner’s report showed McDonald was shot nine times in the back with the additional shots found in his neck, chest, arms, right leg, and scalp. The medical examiner ruled Laquan McDonald’s death a homicide.
Also in question was the discovery of the dashcam video. Journalist Brandon Smith and Community Activist, William Calloway sued the city to release the video to the public. They previously requested the video’s release through the Freedom of Information Act. It took 13 months until the footage was released in 2015 to the public. When the video was released, it became clear that the shooting that was previously categorized as justified by Chicago Police was questionable. What followed was the revelation of an attempted coverup by the Chicago Police Department and then-Mayor Rahm Emmanuel.
In police reports, McDonald was described as erratic and refusing to comply with the officer’s orders to drop the knife. Dashcam video showed Laquan McDonald walking away from officers, not lunging towards them as reported. Jason Van Dyke exited his vehicle and began shooting McDonald six seconds later, firing sixteen shots in 15 seconds. After the first shot was fired, McDonald fell to the ground injured. Jason Van Dyke continued shooting bullets into the 17-year old’s body as he lay on the ground. It was only after the release of the video that Van Dyke was charged with first-degree murder.
Allegations of a Cover-up
At the time of the murder, then-Mayor Rahm Emmanuel was up for re-election. While he knew of the existence and contents of the video, he kept that video from the public until his reelection. His administration fought the video’s release in the courts for over a year. Published emails also show the Mayor’s office finalized a settlement the day after he was reelected. Chicago City Council approved the $5 million settlement to the McDonald family even though the family had not filed any wrongful death lawsuit.
In addition, the Chicago Police Department was also accused of covering up details in Laquan McDonald’s murder. In the 2016 Inspector General’s report, it was detailed that several officers gave false statements. In addition, the report showed how Jason Van Dyke attempted to cover up details in the case. The scathing report recommended the firing of eleven officers and said, “Van Dyke made false reports, false statements and omissions” to create a false narrative of the danger he faced with Laquan McDonald. Only four officers were fired.
The autopsy report, eyewitness statements, and released video prompted a series of protests by community activists. Then Chicago Police Superintendent, Gary McCarthy was fired by Rahm Emmanuel. McCarthy was faulted with knowing about the dashcam video and not disciplining Jason Van Dyke following the murder. Protesters and activists were also credited with Anita Alvarez losing his bid for reelection. She lost her reelection to attorney Kim Foxx, who won with more than 50% of the vote. Rahm Emmanuel also decided not to seek re-election in a move that was believed to be the direct result of calls for his resignation by community activists.
The Trial and Sentencing
Jason Van Dyke was charged with six counts of first-degree murder and sixteen counts of aggravated battery. His trial began in September 2017. It was the first time in over thirty years that a Chicago Police Officer was charged with an on-duty fatality. While Van Dyke was charged in the Laquan McDonald case, it was not the first time he was accused of aggressive force. Over his 14-year career, he had over twenty allegations of abuse and misconduct but was never disciplined.
Van Dyke was found guilty of second-degree murder and sixteen counts of aggravated battery with a firearm in October 2018. He was sentenced to 81 months in prison for the second-degree murder conviction alone. The judge did not consider the sixteen guilty counts of aggravated battery in Van Dyke’s sentence which outraged community activists. State’s Attorney General, Kwame Raoul filed a request with the Il Supreme Court to impose a sentence on each of the sixteen counts of aggravated battery but was denied.
A Slap on the Wrist
Van Dyke served 39 months of his 81-month sentence when he is scheduled for release on Feb. 3rd. Community Activists, Local political and faith leaders are calling for federal charges to be brought against Van Dyke, believing he has not served enough time for murdering a 17-year-old child.
“The crime and the time do not correspond,” said Rev. Jessee Jackson at a news conference last week at Rainbow Push Coalition. With Laquan McDonald’s aunt, grandmother, and over twenty activist groups by his side, Rev. Jackson urged transit workers to protest Van Dyke’s release by shutting down transportation around the city. They also plan a rally and protest on Feb 3rd at Federal Plaza in the Loop at 5 pm.
The Laquan McDonald murder was just one in a series of police-related killings across the county and further highlighted the lack of accountability when police officers play judge, jury, and executioner. As Black Americans felt a glimmer of hope in the conviction of “police officers turned murderers” like Derek Chauvin who faced charges on the state and federal level, the question bears asking. Is 39 months enough time served in the murder of a teenager?
The US attorney’s office has yet to comment on calls for a federal charge against Jason Van Dyke and there has been little to no comment by local politicians in this case. Gov. Pritzker said, “The justice system isn’t always just” when asked about his thoughts on the case.
Advocates and activists have also called on Illinois State Senators, Dick Durbin, and Tammy Duckworth to put pressure on the Department of Justice to file Federal Charges against Jason Van Dyke for the murder of Laquan McDonald. We spoke to community activist and Il Congressional Candidate, Kina Collins for her thoughts on the Van Dyke Release.
Since Laquan McDonald’s murder, former Mayor Rahm Emmanuel was confirmed as US Ambassador to Japan. Former State’s Attorney, Anita Alvarez now serves as Chief Legal counsel of Maryville academy and Former Police Superintendent Gary McArthy had a failed run for Chicago Mayor, conceding to Lori Lightfoot.