Monday Morning Thoughts: What the Conviction of Officer Van Dyke for Murder Means


With everything else happening, many may not have noticed a very consequential jury verdict in the 2014 shooting of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald by Chicago PD Officer Jason Van Dyke.

On Friday, Mr. Van Dyke was found guilty by the jury of second degree murder, and he was also convicted of 16 counts of aggravated battery with a firearm —one for each bullet that struck the teenager.

This was a major verdict – no Chicago police officer had been convicted of murder in an on-duty shooting in nearly 50 years.  And it was perhaps the biggest jury verdict of the post-Ferguson era.

Like the cases of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Eric Garner in Staten Island, and so many more, this case became a symbol and the trial a proxy for years of anger over police mistreatment of black citizens – this time in Chicago.

The dashcam video from a police car was critical.  It took the city 13 months to release the video, and only after the judge ordered it, following the records request by a journalist.

The Times notes that “the fallout was significant: The police superintendent was fired, the local prosecutor lost her re-election bid, and Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced shortly before the trial began that he would not seek re-election next year.”

Here are a few thoughts on the verdict…

First, California just passed AB 748, authored by Assemblymember Phil Ting.  That allows the public to access police body camera footage and other recordings that capture incidents involving officer use of force.  Remember when Davis passed its body camera ordinance, there was no provision for public disclosure – but that was going to change under recommendations from the interim police auditor.

Why is this so important?  It was a records request for the video, turned over to the public 13 months later, that forced the prosecutors to file criminal charges against Mr. Van Dyke.

That leads me to the second thought – video matters.  We have been fighting the fight for body worn cameras and many have wondered if it really makes a difference.  This suggests it does.

For one thing, video can give us a neutral account of what took place.  That turned out to be critical because Officer Van Dyke’s testimony was so widely disparate from the video.

When Officer Jason Van Dyke testified, he asked the jurors to trust his memory rather than the video.  The jurors chose the video.

The only African American juror on the panel told the media Friday that the officer “messed up” by testifying and she did not find him credible.  Nor did her fellow jurors.

“He messed up,” she said. “His testimony wasn’t credible to me. I felt that he was trying to remember stuff that he said that maybe wasn’t true.”

Other jurors found the testimony to be “rehearsed.”  The jurors watched that video dozens of times.  Several said they were bothered by the inconsistencies between his initial statements and what the video showed.

Here is the key – because they had the video, the jurors could rely on it.  The NY Times reported: “They were not swayed by Officer Van Dyke’s testimony that Laquan targeted him with a menacing stare, made a threatening movement with a knife and tried to get up off the ground after being shot. None of those claims were backed by the video.”

Video matters.  It may not always result in a conviction when the officer can more credibly claim to have feared for his life.  But in this case, that assertion was not backed by the testimony of other officers.

Finally, there is this – the trust factor that police have had is wearing down.

One of the reasons that California tried to change the rules in use of force incidents is that it is hard to convict police officers of charges of fatal shootings when carrying out their official duties.  The law gives the police wide latitude to use deadly force.

Most often, the critical element is an officer’s testimony, which is seen to carry great weight with jurors.

Last year, the Times pointed out that “officers who testified in their own defense in Oklahoma, Minnesota, Missouri and Ohio were either acquitted or had the charges dropped.”

But twice this year we have seen officers convicted of murder, despite testifying.

The Times writes that “after the Chicago jurors described Friday how they discounted Officer Van Dyke’s words, some legal experts suggested defense lawyers in future cases might reconsider their tactics.

“Police officers aren’t going to be as confident moving forward with taking their case to a jury, getting that heightened credibility just by being a police officer,” said Alan Tuerkheimer, a Chicago-based jury consultant. “That’s not a given anymore.”

A key factor here was that other officers did not back his account.  No other officers at the scene that night found it necessary to pull their weapon.  Mr. Van Dyke arrived ready to shoot to kill and found the reason to do so.

He is actually fortunate that the jury believed he had lawful intentions, or it would have been murder one with an automatic life sentence.

Is this an exceptional case or does it show that jurors are shifting their views?  What’s remarkable here is that the defense managed to exclude all but one black juror and the verdict was still not close.

Some will continue to view this as angry and anti-cop folks against law and order and safety.  I see it differently – trust comes with holding those who make grievous errors accountable, and that is what we see here.

A jury with no axe to grind has rendered a profound verdict and held at least one police officer accountable for his mistakes.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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