By Erick Johnson
The “Trial of the Century” in Chicago has come and gone. No more morning rush hour drives to the courthouse and going through metal detectors. No more early morning reports on Chicago’s iconic WVON radio station, called in from a musty parking garage across from a building where so many Black males have gone through and which too few bad cops have stepped foot in.
But for all the sacrifices and headaches of covering the murder trial of Chicago Officer Jason Van Dyke, it was worth it. Finally seeing a police officer led out of the courtroom left me speechless. Dressed in a black suit, he looked as if he was going to his own funeral. Only I, and a handful of Black clergy and activists in the courtroom were not mourning. Silently, we were rejoicing.
It was a day many Blacks in Chicago never thought they would see. A white police officer found guilty of killing Laquan McDonald, a Black teenager, and locked up immediately after his historic conviction. For Black Chicago, it was the trial of the century, a moment they had been waiting for a long time.
For this Black journalist, it was history unfolding before my very eyes. It was a story that changed Chicago forever and the climatic ending took place in courtroom 500.
I had a seat in the front row that was reserved for the media. Just yards away from Laquan McDonald’s killer, I often sat on the edge of my seat.
For most of the trial, I sat next to Jamie Kalven. He’s the prominent investigative journalist from the journalism production company the Invisible Institute, which first broke the story that included the official autopsy report that showed that McDonald had 16 bullet wounds in his body.
This trial had its ups and downs. But clearly the biggest moment was when Van Dyke was put on the witness stand during the final week of the proceedings.
By that time, I had left the courthouse to write a big investigative story on how a group of aldermen took money from the mayor less than a month before they approved the $5 million settlement to McDonald’s mother. Yes, I missed the moment Black Chicago had been waiting for. But I watched it on the media video on my cell phone. It wasn’t the same, but the investigative story turned out to be an explosive piece that made the sacrifice worth it.
It was good to see Chicago’s Black clergy and activists pack the courtroom as the trial drew to a close. Reverend Jesse Jackson was there. So were pastors Ira Acree, Marshall Hatch and Marvin Hunter, McDonald’s grand uncle.
At 7:35 a.m. on Friday, October 5, I was on WVON to file my daily update of the trial. Tired from another grueling week at the Leighton Criminal Courthouse, I called in to the radio station from my apartment in South Shore. My gut feeling was that Van Dyke would be convicted, which is what I had shared with the Crusader staff all week after watching Van Dyke contradict the video, himself and even his defense team on the witness stand.
That Friday I told the show’s host Maze Jackson, there would be a verdict later that day. The only question was when.
I stayed in bed until 12:40 p.m. While I was in the shower, WGN Journalist Kelly Barnacle sent me an email saying the jury had reached a verdict. It would be announced at 1:45 p.m.
I dashed out the door wearing flip flops, drove to the courthouse on the West Side and got inside the courtroom around 1:40 p.m. By then all the seats for the media had been taken. I tried to sit in the third row, where Van Dyke’s wife, Tiffany sat. But a big white guy growled at me, saying I couldn’t sit there, although there was room for three people.
I tried to sit in the back, but one of the court officers came and told me to sit with the media even though there were no more spaces available. Suddenly a television reporter made room for me on row two and put me right in front of Tiffany Van Dyke.
When the jury foreman on Friday, October 5 read the verdict that convicted Van Dyke of second-degree murder for shooting Black teenager Laquan McDonald 16 times on October 20, 2014, I immediately looked at his wife Tiffany. Her face turned to gloom. She said nothing. In fact, the entire courtroom was eerily silent. William Calloway, the activist who helped force the release of the video, kept nodding as the jury foreman read “guilty” for each of the 16 counts of aggravated battery with a firearm.
So many years of pain had come to an end, but a new era had dawned in Chicago.
I couldn’t believe it was happening, but it was. A justice system that for decades was viewed as broken by thousands of Blacks and minorities had finally worked, and convicted a Chicago police officer of killing a Black teenager. My assignment was over, but an exciting moment in Black Chicago was the start of a new beginning.
Likewise, many felt Van Dyke should have been convicted of first-degree murder. But guilty on 16 counts of aggravated battery plus second-degree murder? I’ll take that.