CHICAGO — The white Chicago police officer who fired 16 shots into Laquan McDonald, a black teenager, is guilty of second-degree murder, a jury said Friday.
The defendant, Jason Van Dyke, became the first Chicago police officer convicted of murder for an on-duty shooting in nearly 50 years. His case has been followed closely in this city since dashboard camera video of the shooting was released in 2015.
Jurors also convicted Officer Van Dyke on 16 counts of aggravated battery with a firearm, one for every shot he fired at Laquan. Officer Van Dyke, who was escorted out of the packed courtroom with his hands folded behind his back, could face decades in prison when sentenced.
Outside the courthouse, a group of activists — who had planned protests if the officer was acquitted — cheered and chanted: “Justice for Laquan! Justice for Laquan!”
The video of Laquan’s death led to upheaval in local government and the Police Department and became a symbol for decades of mistrust between Chicago officers and black residents. The video showed Laquan, who was carrying a knife, veering away from the police when Officer Van Dyke jumped out of his squad car and started shooting. The shots continued after Laquan, who was 17, collapsed onto the street.
As the case played out at a heavily guarded county courthouse over the last three weeks, some said the verdict would be a referendum on whether a Chicago police officer could ever be held accountable for taking a life. Activists promised massive demonstrations if Officer Van Dyke was acquitted, and city officials extended police officers’ shifts and made plans for protests.
“Anything less than a murder conviction, including a hung jury, is not justice,” said William Calloway, an activist, in an interview before the verdict. “And we’re going to respond appropriately.”
Prosecutors charged Officer Van Dyke with first-degree murder, but Judge Vincent Gaughan also gave jurors the option of convicting him of second-degree murder, which carries a far shorter prison term. Jurors were told to convict on second-degree murder if they decided that the shooting was unjustified but that Officer Van Dyke believed at the time that he was acting reasonably.
Even in the rare instances when officers are charged in deadly shootings, prosecutors often struggle to get convictions. Officer Van Dyke, 40, who has been on unpaid leave since he was charged, testified during the trial that he feared Laquan was going to attack him and that he acted as he was trained.
“I just kept on looking at that knife and I shot at it,” Officer Van Dyke told jurors. “I just wanted him to get rid of that knife.”
Prosecutors argued that Laquan had been trying to escape officers and that he posed no lethal threat. Especially egregious, they said, was Officer Van Dyke’s decision to keep shooting after the teenager fell to the ground.
“He continued to shoot into a completely vulnerable, defenseless young man who was twitching from each time Van Dyke pulled the trigger and pumped another bullet into his body,” said Joseph McMahon, the lead prosecutor. “How is that reasonable and necessary?”
Laquan’s death attracted little immediate news media attention, and city officials spent more than a year trying to keep the dashboard camera video out of public view. When the footage was finally released under court order, outraged protesters marched for weeks, chanting “16 shots and a cover-up.” The police superintendent was fired. The county prosecutor lost her re-election bid. The Police Department tightened rules for when officers can shoot and outfitted all patrol officers with body cameras and Tasers.
Years passed before Officer Van Dyke’s trial, and fallout from the case continued to reshape Chicago. The Justice Department released a damning report that detailed a pattern of excessive force and discriminatory tactics. And on the eve of jury selection, Mayor Rahm Emanuel, whose popularity and power waned after the video was released, announced he would not seek re-election next year.
“This has changed the lives of everybody in this city,” said Ja’Mal Green, an activist who is among many candidates vying to replace Mr. Emanuel. “This has made people pay attention to politics and policies.”