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Jason Van Dyke Sentenced to Nearly 7 Years for Murdering Laquan McDonald

Jason Van Dyke Sentenced to Nearly 7 Years for Murdering Laquan McDonald

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Former Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke was sentenced Friday for fatally shooting Laquan McDonald in 2014.CreditCreditPool photo by Antonio Perez

CHICAGO — Jason Van Dyke, the Chicago police officer who fired 16 deadly shots into Laquan McDonald more than four years ago, was sentenced Friday to just shy of seven years in an Illinois prison, providing a measure of finality in a case that laid bare this city’s racial divisions and led to an overhaul of its long-troubled Police Department.

“This is not pleasant and this is not easy,” said Judge Vincent Gaughan of the Cook County Circuit Court, who announced the sentence. “This is a tragedy for both sides.”

Jurors convicted Mr. Van Dyke in October of second-degree murder and 16 counts of aggravated battery with a firearm, one for each bullet he fired. Prosecutors asked Judge Gaughan to sentence him to at least 18 years in prison. Mr. Van Dyke’s lawyers suggested probation.

Just before learning his sentence of 81 months, Mr. Van Dyke rose and read a short statement.

“The last thing I ever wanted to do … was to shoot Laquan McDonald,” said Mr. Van Dyke, who spoke softly and read from a piece of paper. “People have the right to judge my actions, however no one knows what I was thinking in that critical moment.”

Mr. Van Dyke, who is white, and Laquan, who was black and 17, came to personify the decades of tension between the Chicago police and the city’s African-American residents. Last year’s trial was seen by many Chicagoans as a referendum on whether officers could ever be held accountable for taking a life. Nervous crowds gathered across the city to listen to the verdict and broke out into chants of “Justice for Laquan!” when the court clerk read out “guilty” over and over.

Laquan’s death on Oct. 20, 2014, at first stirred little public outcry and only cursory media coverage. That changed more than a year later when Mr. Van Dyke, 40, was charged with murder and when police dash camera video was released showing Laquan, who was carrying a knife, veering away from the police before crumpling to the street as the gunshots started.

Protesters marched repeatedly in the weeks that followed, forcing out the Chicago police superintendent, successfully pushing for policy changes and weakening Mayor Rahm Emanuel, whose administration had fought to keep the video out of public view.

More than four years after Laquan’s death, the case continues to shape policing and politics in Chicago. The Police Department agreed last year to a court-enforced consent decree after a federal investigation found a pattern of discrimination. Mr. Emanuel, a Democrat whose term ends this year, announced on the eve of Mr. Van Dyke’s trial that he would not seek re-election. And on Thursday, three Chicago officers charged with conspiring to cover up the circumstances of Laquan’s death were acquitted in a separate trial, leading some activists to lament a police “code of silence” that even Mr. Emanuel has acknowledged to be pervasive.

“We cannot improve the safety of our communities if our police force is not held accountable for its actions and the very real culture of the code of silence goes unpunished,” Toni Preckwinkle, a leading candidate in a large field of mayoral hopefuls, said in a statement after Thursday’s verdicts.

[Read more about how the officers were found not guilty of conspiring to protect Mr. Van Dyke.]

At Mr. Van Dyke’s trial, prosecutors played the dash camera video for jurors over and over. They showed gruesome autopsy photographs. They emphasized that Mr. Van Dyke was the only officer to fire his gun.

“It wasn’t the knife in Laquan’s hand that made the defendant kill him that night,” a prosecutor, Jody Gleason, said during closing arguments. “It was his indifference to the value of Laquan’s life.”

A longtime officer who had never been involved in a shooting before, Mr. Van Dyke testified in his own defense, growing emotional at times and insisting that he acted as he was trained. “I just kept on looking at that knife and I shot at it,” he told jurors, who were ultimately unswayed.

Mr. Van Dyke, the first Chicago police officer convicted of murder for an on-duty shooting in nearly 50 years, has spent recent months at the Rock Island County Jail in western Illinois. In post-trial court appearances, Mr. Van Dyke, who was clean-shaven and well-dressed during his trial, had a scruffy beard and wore a yellow jumpsuit. He is widely expected to appeal his conviction.

Before sentencing, prosecutors, defense lawyers and courthouse observers offered wildly divergent theories on the punishment he might face. In the rare instances when other American police officers have been convicted in deadly shootings, sentences have varied greatly. Peter Liang, a former New York City officer found guilty of manslaughter, was sentenced to probation and community service in 2016. Roy Oliver, a former Texas officer, received a 15-year prison term last year for murder. David Warren, a former New Orleans officer convicted in the killing of an unarmed civilian after Hurricane Katrina, received a term of 25 years and 9 months.

[Was the Laquan McDonald case a turning point or an aberration?]

In Mr. Van Dyke’s case, his lawyers suggested probation, which Illinois law allows for second-degree murder, and emphasized that he had no criminal history. They submitted dozens of letters from supporters urging Judge Gaughan to be lenient, including a plea from one of Mr. Van Dyke’s two daughters, who said she fell into a depression after the verdict.

“It’s time for him to hug and kiss his wife and protect his family,” the daughter, who is in high school, wrote to Judge Gaughan. “Bring my dad home.”

But the aggravated battery charges carry a mandatory six-year prison term, leading some to theorize that the minimum sentence might be 96 years in prison if that was applied for all 16 counts. In a pre-sentencing memo, prosecutors suggested a middle road, in which Mr. Van Dyke would serve at least 18 years but not what would in effect be a life sentence.

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