Friday, October 5, 2018, was a cloudy day. Stacks of the week’s edition of the Chicago Crusader filled the news racks at Walgreens and Mariano’s supermarket in Bronzeville. The Crusader’s front page featured a story titled, “Bought?” It was about eight Black aldermen who took political campaign contributions from Mayor Rahm Emanuel weeks before a $5 million settlement was approved for Laquan McDonald’s family. The ink was dry even before relatives could file a lawsuit against the city, the police department, and McDonald’s killer, Officer Jason Van Dyke.
While readers began digesting that story, a bigger story was unfolding in Judge Vincent Gaughan’s courtroom at the Leighton Criminal Court building at 26th and California. Van Dyke, the beleaguered Chicago officer who executed 17-year-old Laquan McDonald on October 20, 2014, sat several yards from me in a Black suit.
With the entire nation watching on live television, a 12 member-jury that included just one Black person had come back with a verdict.
Van Dyke was guilty of second-degree murder.
William Calloway, the activist who helped get the video of the murder released, sat in the back of the courtroom. He nodded each time the jury foreman said guilty to all 16 counts of aggravated battery with a firearm. Van Dyke showed no emotion as each conviction was read. His wife Tiffany who sat behind me was also stoic.
Van Dyke will return to his normal life this weekend after he leaves jail just over three years into his nearly seven-year sentence.
Much has changed in Chicago since he was sentenced. We have a Black female mayor, a new police superintendent, and the new Community Commission for Public Safety and Accountability, a civilian panel to help oversee the Chicago Police Department. With the story of the wrongful raid of the home of Anjanette Young still fresh in their minds, too many Blacks in Chicago, not much has changed.
Three years after he was sent to the slammer, Van Dyke is set to be a free man. His crime horrified a nation and his short jail time insulted many Blacks who believe he escaped justice even as a convicted murderer.
Like other historic events, many remember what they were doing when television stations broke from regular programming to announce the Van Dyke verdict. I was sitting in the media section of the courtroom in front of rows of Van Dyke supporters.
I arrived minutes before the verdict was read. Someone from CBS 2 Chicago offered me a front-row seat when one of Van Dyke’s supporters told me that I was in a section that was “reserved” for his relatives.
The room was packed and quiet. It remained silent as Van Dyke learned his fate.
After the verdict was read, many people converged in the media area on the first floor of the criminal courts building. A forest of television cameras stood along with print, radio, and broadcast journalists from across the country.
I stood within two feet of Marvin Hunter as one activist after another spoke about justice for the murdered Black teenager. After soliciting several comments from activists and attorneys, I rushed to write the story for the online edition of the Crusader, passing about 50 protestors on the steps of the courthouse. They cheered. Some cried. Many raised clenched fists in the air. “No Justice, No Peace!” several shouted.
The moment was surreal. I couldn’t believe that for the first time in 50 years a Chicago cop had been convicted for shooting a civilian.
The headline of the online story over 5,000 words, was simply titled, “Guilty.” There were statements from activist Ja’Mal Green, Reverend Jesse Jackson, Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, Congressman Bobby Rush, Congresswoman Robin Kelly, Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker, and Lt. Governor Julianna Stratton, Cook County Circuit Court Clerk Dorothy Brown and many other Black elected officials who praised the verdict. Even Jesse Sharkey, president of the Chicago Teachers Union gave a statement.
There was much talk about Van Dyke being sentenced to life in prison. But amid the praises and celebrations, in the streets of Chicago was a fear that Van Dyke would not get the punishment he deserved.
His lead attorney, Daniel Hebert, a strong advocate of police officers, asked Judge Gaughan to throw out the conviction, saying his client did not get a fair trial, which he had wanted to be moved out of Cook County because of the intense media publicity. He was denied.
At the Crusader, there was an editorial decision to use the word murderer to describe Van Dyke after his conviction. In their stories, other newspapers and newscasts described him as convicted Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke. In reality, the man behind the badge was no doubt a cold-blooded murderer who showed no remorse for brutally killing a Black teenager.
In the Crusader newsroom, staffers searched the press pool courtroom photos for a picture of Van Dyke in handcuffs. Editors made sure to use any photos of him in his faded yellow prison uniform, a uniform which many sheriffs used to describe Black defendants as “bananas” when they appear for hearings at 26th and California.
As the date for Van Dyke’s sentencing hearing approached, there was much talk and speculation on evening newscasts and talk radio on how many years he would be sentenced. Some said 25 years. Others said 10. One caller on WVON said he would get 40 years for murdering McDonald.
But no one was expecting the sentence Judge Gaughan delivered on the cold morning of January 19. I was sitting in the courtroom’s first row next to Jamie Kalven, the journalist who broke the story of McDonald’s murder with the help of Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle.
Van Dyke read from a piece of paper, speaking softly. He said shooting Laquan “was the last thing I ever wanted to do. People have the right to judge my actions, however, no one knows what I was thinking in that critical moment.”
Minutes later, Van Dyke received his sentence. Six years and nine months behind bars. That’s it. A slap on the wrist. A conviction with no teeth. Justice that never was justice.
For all its victories and historic precedence, the Van Dyke trial, in the end, felt like a failure and disappointment in Black Chicago, where a guilty verdict was reached, but justice was unfulfilled by the pronouncement of a weak sentence that did not fit Van Dyke’s crime.
Fast forward to 2022.
Van Dyke is a free man after serving just over three years of his nearly seven-year prison sentence. He spent some time in Cook County’s notorious jail before he was sent to Rock Island far, west of Chicago. He was beaten up in federal prison in Danbury, Connecticut. He was then moved to a low-security federal facility in Otisville, New York. News reports said Van Dyke spent his last days of confinement in a halfway house in Illinois after he was brought back to the state on Friday, January 28.
No federal charges were ever filed against Van Dyke, who was convicted during the pro-police administration of President Donald Trump and his “Make America Great Again Initiative.
Now, two U.S. Senators from Illinois who supported the nomination of former Mayor Rahm Emanuel for the ambassador of Japan are calling on U.S. Attorney Merrick Garland for the status of a six-year investigation into Van Dyke’s conduct.
The NAACP is also asking the Justice Department to file charges. As the Justice Department remains silent, Van Dyke haunts Black Chicago once again.