Two Weeks ago, the Laquan McDonald shooting case played out over the airwaves. Everyone wondered if an officer would finally be convicted of murder. Would that end the now-rote “defense of my life” excuse that exonerated officers every other time they committed murder? Would it do anything to curb the deaths of unarmed black people at the hands of these officers that are coming in weekly?
News writer Johnny Ringo delves deeper into the Laquan McDonald case to give us a closer look at what was at stake and why this case is pivotal to the police brutality issue.
By Johnny Ringo
CHICAGO – On October 5th, 2018, the Chicago Tribune reports that Chicago officer Jason Van Dyke was convicted of the murder of 17 year-old-Laquan McDonald. Taking almost four years to find justice and with plenty of community outrage, the conviction of Van Dyke is a much-needed breath of hope to many. The Tribune writes, “Van Dyke is the first Chicago police officer in half a century to be found guilty of murder for an on-duty shooting. He faces a minimum of 6 years in prison…”
At 10:54 on the morning of the verdict, the jury continued to deliberate the charges, including determining whether the 16 shots fired were described as such due to simple reports, or by the medical examiner’s autopsy. At 11:13 am, an arrest was made regarding an anonymous threat made “against police officers and public officials”. A person in question was labeled a “person of interest”, and charges were pending following an investigation into the threat. The police refused to comment on the identity of the suspects or the nature of the threat.
The judge on the Van Dyke trial instructed jurors to determine the 16 counts of aggravated battery due to the number of shots fired, which was concurred by the prosecutors. Van Dyke’s lead attorney did not challenge that, but did argue that to add 16 counts of battery to the official list of charges was “confusing”. Van Dyke’s attorney argued that if the jury could not indict Van Dyke on one charge of aggravated battery, then they should drop all 16 counts.
The judge denied that request, labeling it unorthodox. At 1:45 pm, the verdict was announced, after less than eight hours of deliberation. Chicago Cardinal Blase Cupich encouraged peaceful protest in the spirit of Dr. Martin Luther King throughout the city. Police officers circled the exits of City Hall as protesters gathered.
For hours after the verdict was read, just before 2 pm on Friday, demonstrators throughout the city cheered, chanting “Justice for Laquan!” The official charges were second-degree murder, and aggravated battery for each of the 16 shots he fired at Laquan. Van Dyke’s charges in legal parlance essentially mean that Van Dyke’s actions led to the death of Laquan without premeditation, but that every bullet fired was an unlawful attack on Laquan’s person, leading to his death.
Van Dyke’s wife reportedly cried in the courtroom, as did Laquan’s great uncle, a Reverend Marvin Hunter. While the police who supported Van Dyke was dejected and silent, the defense attorney for Van Dyke claimed that this was “a sad day for law enforcement”. Community activists reportedly said, “We don’t need Rambo cops on the street shooting kids.” The Tribune reports that “Ja’Mal Green, a mayoral candidate, called for an investigation into whether City Hall was part of an alleged cover-up to stall the release of the police dashboard camera video of the shooting for more than a year.”
The Tribune reports that Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson called for healing and peace, as the city attempts to move forward into a better direction. Also quoted by the Tribune, Chicago Fraternal Order of Police President Kevin Graham called the verdict “unfortunate”, saying, “Mark my words, there will be an appeal. We do think Jason has a tough road to go but he is not standing alone.” Black community leaders, however, lauded the victory as real justice and expressed hope that future injustices would be rightfully punished.
The Tribune quotes an activist as saying, “It was just so unnecessary to shoot someone’s child like that. This was a minor. And this officer just went overboard. We hope that this verdict sends a message to the other police departments throughout the United States that we should be treated fairly, and hopefully police officers shouldn’t be so quick to pull the trigger. We want them to negotiate with us and treat us like they would their own families in the same situations.” The pressure against City Hall in light of this verdict is mounting.
The Tribune reports that Frank Chapman, a seasoned veteran with Chicago Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression, said, “It is a great day for the movement but this is not the last day,” Chapman said. “It’s the beginning, the beginning of changes that we’ve been needing in the city for a very long time…The mayor of the city sat on this tape for 400 days. Jason Van Dyke was free on (Laquan’s) murder for 400 days and the FOP supported him. Forty-seven members of the city council voted for hush money for the McDonald family, and they saw the video…So the whole city administration is guilty and in the people’s court we’re going to put them on trial.”
The only charge that Van Dyke was not convicted of was official misconduct. Official misconduct can be defined in US law as, “…a wrongful act which the actor has no legal right to do…” (Daugherty v. Ellis, 1956). With this charge being the only one that Van Dyke was not convicted of, it brings with it legal, social, and philosophical questions. If this was not misconduct in an official manner or capacity, does that mean that what Van Dyke did was acceptable by police training and conduct standards? This author happens to be educated in police training standards.
The dash cam footage in question does not show Laquan McDonald committing any crime. There is no visual indication that Laquan already had, or was about to commit any crime, which is necessary for police to legally stop a person (Terry v. Ohio, 1968). The video merely shows Laquan walking forward past two police officers, who are shown drawing their guns, and then Laquan died. This is not proper police procedure. He was not armed, he presented no physical threat, and their lives were not in danger at any point. This was an unlawful murder, and it speaks volumes as to what the Chicago PD determines to be a “threat” to their officers.
The “I feared for my life” defense cannot apply to this case, as Laquan never attacked the officers in the footage. The greater question of whether City Hall knowingly tried to suppress this footage, and whether the Fraternal Order of Police (the nation’s largest police union) helped them do it, brings up even worse fear and accusations of rampant corruption, of the city allying with police organizations to allow police to kill black citizens and get away with it. Police cannot be allowed to get away with murder by essentially claiming that black men are living, walking threats at all times; it is unjust.
This case and many others show the necessity of an overhaul of police training standards, at the very least. But if anything, this case could and should set a legal precedent that officers cannot fire at unarmed people under the argument that their lives were in danger. Police brutality will continue — one case where justice won out won’t stop that — but this conviction is greatly needed, and can be a herald of future change.