By Erick Johnson
Officer Jason Van Dyke on Friday, January 18, was given more than six years in prison, igniting outrage in Chicago’s Black community and renewing concerns about police misconduct and a justice system that for the second day in a row, delivered a ruling that fell far short of expectations. The historic case that came to a shocking end put the code of silence of Chicago’s notorious police department in the national spotlight.
After a marathon hearing that ran for seven hours at the Leighton Criminal Court Building, Judge Vincent Gaughan sentenced Van Dyke to 81 months and two years of probation, three months after he was found guilty of second-degree murder for shooting teenager Laquan McDonald 16 times on October 20, 2014. Van Dyke has been in jailed since he was convicted on October 4 last year. During his hearing Friday, he was dressed in a prison uniform, but not in handcuffs.
Van Dyke’s short prison sentence that is being viewed as a big victory for Van Dyke and his supporters and the final blow to Black leaders. At the start of the long holiday weekend honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, they returned to the same courthouse where three Chicago police officers were acquitted of all charges after they were charged with conspiring to cover up McDonald’s brutal murder.
But what many had hoped to be a just prison sentence for the first Chicago police officer to get convicted in 50 years, turned out to be a second dose of devastating news that left many angry, confused and searching for answers.
In his ruling, Gaughan cited several legal cases before he announced that he would only be sentenced for second-degree murder and not the 16 counts of aggravated battery. He asked out loud, “Which is more serious for Laquan McDonald to be shot by a firearm or is it more serious for Laquan McDonald to be murdered?”
If Van Dyke remains on good behavior, he would serve half of his prison time. It’s not clear whether the 105 days that Van Dyke has already served will be subtracted from his prison sentence.
But Gaughan’s ruling has drawn a firestorm of criticism from activists and Black leaders who say despite Gaughan’s legal explanations, Van Dyke’s punishment does not fit his crime.
“Today, our justice system failed Laquan McDonald and all of our Black and Brown communities,” said Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle in a statement. “Jason Van Dyke, the police officer who shot Laquan sixteen times to death, was sentenced to just 81 months in prison, with legal experts saying he will likely only serve three years. This sentence does not reflect the severity of the crime committed or the senseless loss of a young life.”
Alderman Roderick Sawyer (6th Ward) said, “Judge Gaughan’s sentence of Jason Van Dyke amounts to a denial of justice for the family of Laquan McDonald. It is a slap in the face. And it sends yet another clear statement to the Black community that our lives simply do not matter.”
Each count of aggravated battery with a firearm legally carries seven to 30 years in prison. The punishment for second-degree murder in Illinois ranges from 2 to 20 years, with a maximum of four years of probation. With 6.75 years, Van Dyke will serve tiny percentage of the charges that he was convicted of last October.
Black spectators packed the courtroom, where they sat all day listening to witnesses from both sides which aimed to influence Gaughan’s decision on Van Dyke’s prison sentence. Mayoral candidate Willie Wilson attended the proceedings in the morning and another mayoral candidate, LaShawn Ford arrived in the afternoon. Activist Ja’Mal Green, who dropped out of the mayoral race this month, was also there. Reverend Jesse Jackson Sr.’s son, Jonathan was there on behalf of his father. And Gregory Livingston was escorted out of the courtroom as a witness who was deaf tried to identify Van Dyke during his testimony. Livingston later was allowed back into the courtroom and told the Crusader that hand gestures he was making to activist William Calloway appeared that he was making them to the witness.
That witness was one of five males-four of whom where Black-who testified about their encounters with Van Dyke during traffic stops in Chicago. One man said Van Dyke placed his hand around his throat in the backseat of a police car, hoping to remove a cough drop from his throat after a breathalyzer test revealed that he had a high alcohol level. In one emotional testimony, Eddie Vance, a basketball referee, cried as he described how he suffered painful physical injuries after Van Dyke handcuffed him and allegedly threw him on the floor in the back of a police cruiser in 2011. Lead prosecutor Joseph McMahon said Nance filed a lawsuit against the department and won.
Hunter read a letter that was written as if McDonald was the author. Van Dyke remained stoic as Hunter read the letter, which scolded the police department and the city and Van Dyke for their role in the McDonald’s murder.
But these testimonies apparently had little impact on Van Dyke’s prison sentence. Gaughan said McDonald’s death was tragic for both families, but Van Dyke’s relatively light sentence has many Blacks believing that once again the court has favored a police officer over a Black victim.
On the defense side, Van Dyke’s two daughters and wife, Tiffany spoke, describing how the case has “cost” them the comfortable life they once lived before the shooting. Tiffany testified that at one point, she was living off credit cards because no one would give her a job because of her last name. At the beginning of her testimony, she said she found a new job with health benefits. She cried when she said. “My husband is everything. He’s my other half. He’s my heart. There’s no malice to my husband. There’s no racism with my husband. He’s a great officer.”
Gaughan then called for a five-minute recess before he gave Van Dyke his prison sentence. The room was quiet and Van Dyke, in his golden yellow prison uniform stood silent as he sat between his lawyers.
Immediately after the ruling, Reverend Marvin Hunter, McDonald’s uncle, spoke before throngs of television cameras, blasting the prison sentence.
“We’re being treated like second class citizens here in the city of Chicago,” Hunter said. This sentence represents the sentence of a second class citizen and reduced Laquan McDonald’s life to a second class citizen.”
“I think this decision should have been much different not just for my family, but for this country and the American justice system as a whole. But we got to get it together. These old antiquated laws and this thinking of being separated has to stop and it needs to stop now.”
There was also anger and disappointment towards lead Prosecutor Joseph McMahon, who during his closing arguments, asked Gaughan to give a minimum prison sentence of 18 to 20 years to Van Dyke. Yesterday during a press conference, Hunter said he wanted Van Dyke to serve at least 96 years.
Black leaders campaigned hard for months to get a special prosecutor to handle the Van Dyke case rather than the Cook County State’s Attorney Office, where top prosecutor Anita Alvarez charged Van Dyke with first degree murder 13 months after he killed McDonald.
Black leaders and activists were still reeling from yesterday’s acquittal of Officers David March, Joseph Walsh and Thomas Gaffney, who just two floors below, walked out of the courtroom free men. Judge Domenica Stephenson cleared them of all charges after ruling that prosecutors failed to prove that the three officers were guilty of conspiracy, misconduct and obstruction of justice after they were accused of working together to falsify police reports after McDonald was shot 16 times.
That verdict angered many Black pastors, who said they would not attend the city’s 33rd annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Interfaith breakfast Friday morning at the Marriot Marquis. As it turned out, there were many empty tables on the side of the main ballroom.
The following are some of the comments and statements sent to the Chicago Crusader Newspaper after the sentencing on Friday, January 18, 2019.
STATEMENT FROM MAYOR EMANUEL AND CPD SUPERINTENDENT EDDIE JOHNSON ON JASON VAN DYKE SENTENCING
“Today’s sentencing marks the end of a court case, but our work to bring lasting reform to the Chicago Police Department continues. While a jury and judge have rendered their decisions, all of us who love Chicago and call this city home must continue to work together, listen to each other, and repair relationships that will make Chicago safer and stronger for generations to come.”
ACRE Statement on the Sentencing of Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke
CHICAGO– In response to Cook County Judge Vincent Gaughan’s sentencing of Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke for the 2014 murder of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald, Research Analyst Alyxandra Goodwin with the Action Center on Race & the Economy (ACRE) released the following statement:
“Today, we want to extend our deepest condolences to the family of Laquan McDonald during this time.
“The six year and nine month sentencing of Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke for the fatal shooting of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald is not justice for a community already struggling with over-policing, police violence and brutality, and other law enforcement abuses.
“We already know that Black and Brown communities cannot count on the justice system to actually provide justice most of the time, but cases like these throw salt in what is still a very fresh wound. We also know this is just the tip of the iceberg.
“The systems that make it possible for Officer Van Dyke to receive such a light sentence, are the same systems that caused Laquan McDonald’s death, cause the over-policing of our neighborhoods, and even wealth transfer out of communities of color, as Chicago’s police brutality bonds have shown us.
“We need to dismantle this system of policing and build a justice system that prioritizes the needs and well-being of all people.”
After the LaQuan McDonald shooting, the Department of Justice investigated the CPD. The January 2017 DOJ report found that CPD’s “unreasonable force and systemic deficiencies fall heaviest on the predominantly black and Latino neighborhoods. CPD has tolerated racially discriminatory conduct that not only undermines police legitimacy, but also contributes to the pattern of unreasonable force”. The DOJ outlined a total of 99 recommendations to improve CPD practices.
ACRE also made key recommendations. Read the “POLICE BRUTALITY BONDS REPORT: How Wall Street Profits from Police Violence.”
Much of this debt is in the form of bonds (we call them ‘police brutality bonds’) issued by cities and counties to cover the rising costs of excessive settlements or judgments in these cases. The interest and service fees on these bonds can nearly double the cost of the settlements – leading to substantial profit for banks and investors, and a financial burden for everyone else.
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The Action Center on Race & the Economy (ACRE) is a campaign hub for organizations working at the intersection of racial justice and Wall Street accountability.
Chicago Urban League Interim President and CEO Barbara Lumpkin released the following statement regarding the sentencing of Jason Van Dyke.
“Many people in Chicago were hoping for a prison sentence for Jason Van Dyke that would finally convey that our society values the life of the black teenager he murdered and, thus, the lives of all black people. We did not get that. Instead, this sentencing is a reminder that our pursuit of equity in policing and in criminal justice is ongoing.
For decades, we’ve watched black communities in Chicago be devastated by mass incarceration and lengthy prison terms for nonviolent offenses. Consequently, three years or even 81 months for second degree murder falls terribly short.
The Chicago Urban League will continue to support efforts for a fair and equitable criminal justice system for all Chicagoans.”
From The Personal Desk of Dr. Willie Wilson
OFFICIAL STATEMENT ON THE SENTENCING OF FORMER CPD POLICE OFFICER-NOW-CONVICTED MURDER JASON VAN DYKE
Today, on the eve of celebrating Civil Rights Icon Martin Luther King, Jr., I have to wonder what he would be think about this miscarriage of justice we just witnessed. There’s no liberty or justice in this. He’s got to be rolling over in his grave! It’s a sad day when a young black teenager can be shot 16 times by police, 9 times in the back, in 2019. King marched right here, in Chicago, in 1966 for the SAME injustice.
Three cops charged with conspiracy. They say no cover up. One convicted for murder. They say six years, which means three. I’ve bailed people out of jail who have been there for three years for petty theft! I ask “Is that all a black life is worth?” It’s 2019. We can do better. We need to do better. We HAVE TO do better.
I understand Van Dyke’s wife and family want him to come home. LaQuan McDonald will never go home to his family, ever again.
I sat in that courtroom today and witnessed, first hand, bold face injustice. Personally, I am disgusted. I am tired of it. Every race, creed and color in this city is tired of it and they are saying so. We have a long way to go. I say we don’t necessarily need new legislation. We need a new city council, a new superintendent and a new mayor. That is the ONLY way we can go in a new direction.
May God bless the families affected by this tragedy. And may God bless the City of Chicago.