Attorneys give opening statements in trial of Chicago officer charged with killing black man

Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke unnecessarily fired 16 shots at ...

Posted: Sep. 18, 2018 9:46 AM
Updated: Sep. 18, 2018 9:46 AM

Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke unnecessarily fired 16 shots at Laquan McDonald, killing him, after he saw a "black boy" who dared to ignore police, but the 17-year-old was not a threat and already boxed in by officers and a chain link fence, a prosecutor argued Monday as the officer's trial opened.

But defense attorney Dan Herbert told a jury the case was not about race but about an officer's attempt to protect the public from an "out of control individual who didn't care about anyone -- not citizens, not armed police officers and not himself."

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Attorneys painted contrasting views of Van Dyke, who is white -- a reckless officer who fired within six seconds of arriving at the scene, according to the prosecution; a family man trying to protect the public from a teenager who was high on PCP and planning to attack police, according to the defense.

Van Dyke, who is facing first-degree murder charges, is accused of killing McDonald in the October 2014 shooting that was captured on an infamous grainy dash camera video. Special prosecutor Joseph McMahon highlighted the dash camera video, playing it for jurors. But Herbert said the video didn't tell the full picture of that night.

Police initially said after the shooting that McDonald lunged toward officers with a knife, prompting Van Dyke to open fire after getting out of his squad car. But the footage released more than a year later showed McDonald walking away from officers, rather than charging at them.

That video sparked protests, a Justice Department civil rights investigation, criticism of the city's mayor, and the ouster of the police superintendent.

"In total, this defendant decides to shoot Laquan McDonald, not once, not twice, but three, four, five, six, seven, eight -- he's only halfway done -- nine, 10, 11, 12, 13 14, 15, 16 times in total," McMahon, told jurors, slowly counting to 16.

'Not a murderer'

Van Dyke faces two counts of first-degree murder, 16 counts of aggravated assault with a firearm and an official misconduct charge.

Herbert said his client "is not a murderer."

"The evidence is going to show that it was a scared police officer, fearful for his life and others, and he acted within the training," Herbert said.

Van Dyke is first Chicago police officer to be charged with first-degree murder since 1980. Before opening statements, prosecutors dropped four of the six first-degree murder charges Van Dyke faced going into the trial.

On the night of the shooting, McMahon said officers first responded to a 911 call around 9:45 p.m. about a man with a knife at a truck parking lot about 12 minutes before the fatal shooting. McDonald had left the lot by the time police arrived, McMahon said.

Van Dyke was one of several officers who arrived at the scene as back-up for the first responders.

Officers, who had a description of McDonald, saw him almost immediately walking on a sidewalk with the knife. One officer -- Joseph McElligott -- got out of his squad car and walked toward McDonald and ordered McDonald to drop his knife, McMahon said.

McDonald ignored the command but he "doesn't run, doesn't turn around and swear or attack or threaten" the officer, the prosecutor said.

'A black boy walking down the street'

At one point, McDonald hit the front windshield of McElligott's police vehicle and popped the front right tire with his knife when the officer in the vehicle tried to cut him off, McMahon said.

McDonald ran through a Burger King parking lot, ending up on Pulaski Avenue, where he was boxed in by a tall chain link fence and nearly a dozen officers -- including Van Dyke -- who had arrived as back-up McMahon said.

As his partner pulled up alongside McDonald, Van Dyke tried to jump out of his police car, but his partner said, "not yet, we're too close," McMahon said.

He said Van Dyke then got of the vehicle "gun drawn" as McDonald was walking toward the fence.

"He didn't know a single fact about Laquan McDonald's tragic and troubled childhood ... What he did see was a black boy walking down the street of Pulaski towards a chain link fence and having the audacity to ignore the police," McMahon said.

'On a wild rampage'

Defense attorney Herbert countered that McDonald "was on a wild rampage" in the 24 hours before he was killed. He tried to steal a woman's car. But police let him go when she told them not to arrest him.

Prosecutors "want you to look at the final chapter without reading the rest of the book. They want you to go in for the final two minutes of a two-hour movie without knowing the context," Herbert said.

He said the dash cam "doesn't show the desperation and the violent acts of Laquan McDonald, which all led to Jason Van Dyke's decision that he was in fear."

In the truck parking lot, McDonald had twice tried to stab the truck driver who called police after he caught McDonald trying to steal a radio, Herbert said.

"It's a pattern here," Herbert said. "Laquan McDonald was confronted and when Laquan McDonald gets confronted, he attacks."

Herbert maintained that Van Dyke and his partner blocked the entrance to the Burger King, preventing McDonald from getting into the fast-food restaurant.

Throughout his encounter with police, McDonald didn't make eye contact until he fixed his gaze on police, preparing to attack, the defense attorney said.

"Think about it like a horror movie ... You see the villain walking down the street. He's not very fearful but when he stops, and he turns, and he makes eye contact with the victim, then that's when the music starts playing," Herbert said.

He said Van Dyke fired 14 shots and reassessed but didn't know if McDonald "had the ability to get back up and attack him."

Herbert said: "What happened to Laquan McDonald was a tragedy ... but it's not a murder."

McElligott, the first officer to encounter McDonald, later testified that he kept his weapon drawn the entire time he followed about 15 feet behind McDonald but never fired. They were "trying to buy time to have a Taser (brought to the scene) and he didn't make any direct movement at me," McElligott said, adding he felt his partner was protecting him from the squad car.

Under cross examination by the defense, McElligott acknowledged that he considered the threat level raised when McDonald cut the tire of his police vehicle.

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