By Erick Johnson and Chinta Strausberg
As defense attorneys for Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke continue arguing their case this week, Chicago’s Black leaders and activists are preparing the city’s Black community for the verdict as the trial continues to move swiftly, beyond expectations.
With anger still simmering from the failed attempts to bring police officers Roberto Rialmo and Dante Servin to justice in recent years, there is concern that Van Dyke will not be convicted of first degree murder for shooting to death teenager Laquan McDonald 16 times on October 20, 2014.
The concerns come as Van Dyke’s defense attorneys present their arguments this week. Prosecutors rested their case September 21 following four days of testimony from officers and witnesses who said McDonald never threatened or attacked Van Dyke before he was shot.
Pastors Marshall Hatch and Ira Acree were among a handful of Black clergy who sat across from Van Dyke’s wife Tiffany in courtroom 500.
They were among a packed room of spectators who saw Van Dyke’s defense attorneys present their case before the 12 jurors for the first time. Many of them were stoic as two jail guards from the Cook County Temporary Juvenile Center recalled incidents where they had to restrain or handcuff McDonald before he was placed behind bars at the facility. It was an attempt by Van Dyke’s attorneys to show that McDonald was prone to violent behavior.
But their case was weakened after two days of back-to-back cross examinations of their expert witnesses, both of whom appeared at times to crumble as they were grilled on the witness stand. One of them, Dr. Shaku Teas, a former pathologist, tried to undermine the testimony of the Cook County medical examiner who testified for the prosecution last week.
Teas said the autopsy report lacked proper documentation and photographs but nearly recanted her argument after an intense cross examination by prosecutor Jody Gleason. She picked apart Teas’ testimony after the former pathologist contradicted the infamous video and said most of the bullets struck McDonald while he was standing up. Teas also said just one of the 16 bullets killed McDonald. On her report for the defense Teas omitted most of the shots that Van Dyke fired at McDonald.
The next day, Assistant Prosecutor Marilyn Hite Ross grilled Jason Fries, a forensic animator who created a three-dimension animation video that showed the shooting from Van Dyke’s point of view. The video contradicted the actual dash cam video, showing McDonald sliding before he fell amid a hail of bullets Van Dyke fired at him.
In addition to exposing several omissions from the animation, Ross questioned whether Van Dyke was wearing a bullet proof vest, but Fries said that didn’t matter. The cross examination aimed to undermine the credibility and accuracy of the animated video. The information for the animation was supplied by Van Dyke’s attorneys and their expert, Teas. The former pathologist did not base her conclusions of the gun shot wounds on the official autopsy report.
With just one Black on the 12-member jury, Black leaders and activists are still worried that the trial could end in a hung jury that would force Judge Vincent Gaughan to declare a mistrial, allowing Van Dyke to walk free.
Few officers in Chicago who are involved in on-duty shootings are charged with murder and those who are, are rarely convicted. Char- ges were never brought against Officer Robert Rialmo, who killed 19-year-old Quintonio LeGrier and 55-year old Bettie Jones at an apartment on the West Side in 2016.
In June, a judge vacated a $1 million award to LeGrier’s family. Jurors unanimously voted to award LeGrier’s family after they said that Rialmo reasonably believed that he fired to protect himself from the teen as he approached officers with a baseball bat.
In 2015, a Cook County judge acquitted Officer Dante Servin for firing into a crowd that killed 22-year-old Rekia Boyd in 2016. Judge Dennis Porter ruled that Servin should have been charged with first degree murder instead of involuntary manslaughter. The stunning decision left no opportunity for prosecutors to appeal.
If Van Dyke is acquitted, leaders fear that frustration with Cook County’s justice system will boil over in Chicago’s Black community.
At a worship service at Saint Sabina, Father Michael L. Pfleger on Sunday challenged Chicagoans not to engage in violence when a verdict is reached.
“In this city there is going to be a decision of Jason Van Dyke and the murder of Laquan McDonald” and the outcome, he said, “will send a message for some that will be their last chance of belief in the system because many have become so discouraged with the system including myself.”
Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson said, “We are prepared to ramp up deployments if the need arises. Right now, I don’t think that we’ll have to do that, but days off being canceled is one of them, going to 12 hour shifts is another one, but again, I don’t anticipate anything other than peaceful protest.”
On Tuesday, September 25 on what would have been McDonald’s 21st birthday, activist William Calloway called on all of the gangs in the city for a citywide peace treaty.
“We want people to know in our community to put the guns down. It’s not just if Jason Van Dyke is acquitted. It’s in general. If he’s convicted or acquitted, we want a peace treaty, citywide,” said Calloway, who persuaded a Cook County judge to release the video in 2016.
Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez and former Police Superintendent Garry McGarthy were ousted after they were accused of covering up the shooting as Mayor Rahm Emanuel campaigned for re-election in the Black community. With tensions brewing, Emanuel announced his decision to not run for re-election one day before the Van Dyke trial began. Now, Van Dyke remains the last central figure standing in the McDonald case.
“I want to believe with all of my heart that he will be convicted and will go to jail for the rest of his life for the murder,” Pfleger said.