A white Chicago policeman has been found guilty of the second-degree murder of black teenager Laquan McDonald – the first time in half a century that a Chicago police officer has been convicted for an on-duty killing.
Jason Van Dyke, 40, faces up to 20 years in prison after a jury found him guilty of second-degree murder – roughly the American equivalent of manslaughter – instead of first-degree murder. First-degree murder would have carried a life sentence, but the jury found instead that he believed his life was in danger, although that belief was unreasonable.
The Chicago police department was braced for protests after the verdict, and had in advance cancelled days off and put officers on 12-hour shifts. An extra 4,000 officers are on the street, according to spokesman Anthony Guglielmi, as activists have been planning how they might react to a verdict.
He was also convicted of 16 counts of aggravated battery, and acquitted of one count of official misconduct.
Van Dyke shot 17-year-old McDonald dead in October 2014, firing 16 bullets in 13 seconds after McDonald refused to drop a three-inch knife.
Dashcam footage of the incident was released in November 2015, sparking protests across the city. The footage showed McDonald walking away from the officers rather than charging at them, as the Chicago police department had claimed.
The chief of Chicago police, Garry McCarthy, was forced to resign in the aftermath, and the mayor of Chicago, Rahm Emanuel, was strongly criticised for waiting 400 days to release the footage.
The justice department launched an investigation, which found a "pervasive cover-up culture", and prompted plans for far-reaching police reforms.
In November 2015 Van Dyke was charged with first-degree murder, aggravated battery and official misconduct. He was indicted by a grand jury a month later, and jurors in his trial began hearing evidence on September 17.
The week before the trial began, Mr Emanuel, whose tenure as mayor has been dominated by fallout from the killing, announced he was not seeking re-election in 2019.
During closing arguments on Thursday, prosecutor Jody Gleason pointed to dashcam video and noted that Van Dyke told detectives that McDonald raised the knife, that Van Dyke back-pedalled, and that McDonald tried to get up off the ground after being shot.
"None of that happened," she said. "You’ve seen it on video. He made it up."
Ms Gleason seized on the testimony of one the defence’s own witnesses, a psychologist who interviewed Van Dyke.
Dr Laurence Miller said that when Van Dyke heard on his radio that McDonald had a knife and had punctured the tire of a squad car, he told his partner: "Oh my God, we’re going to have to shoot the guy."
Ms Gleason said Van Dyke had made up his mind about what he’d do before even arriving at the scene.
"Laquan McDonald was never going to walk home that night," she said.
She told jurors that while police officers are allowed to use deadly force in some circumstances, this was not one of them.
"They do not have the right to use deadly force just because you will not bow to their authority," she said.
"This is not the Wild West out here, where an officer can shoot an individual and try to justify it later."
But Van Dyke’s attorney, Dan Herbert, said the video, the centerpiece of the prosecutor’s case, doesn’t tell the whole story and is "essentially meaningless based on the testimony" jurors heard.
He pointed to testimony from Van Dyke’s partner that night, Joseph Walsh, who said he saw McDonald raise the knife, even though the video doesn’t show that. Van Dyke made similar claims on the witness stand as he told jurors that he was afraid for his life and acted according to his training.
"The video is not enough," said Mr Herbert.
He added: "It shows a perspective, but it’s the wrong perspective."
Mr Herbert did not tell the jurors that Mr Walsh is one of three officers charged with conspiring to cover up and lie about the circumstances of the Oct. 20, 2014, shooting – in order to protect Van Dyke.
Mr Herbert argued that McDonald was to blame for what happened that night, saying "the tragedy … could have been prevented by one simple step."
He then dramatically took the knife that was entered into evidence earlier and dropped it on the floor in front of the jury box. Van Dyke testified that he repeatedly asked the teen to drop the knife.
Mr Herbert also reminded jurors that a prosecutor briefly mentioned the issue of race during opening statements but never broached the issue again.
"Did you see any evidence that race had anything to do with this case?" he said. "When you don’t have evidence, you use argument."
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