Former Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke was sentenced Friday to nearly seven years for the 2014 murder of teenager Laquan McDonald.
Cook County Judge Vincent Gaughan said in his ruling that he will sentence Van Dyke to 81 months, which means the former officer could be out in about four years with good behavior.
The ruling came after jurors in October convicted Van Dyke of second-degree murder and 16 counts of aggravated battery ― one for each bullet fired at McDonald when the white officer shot the black 17-year-old on a Chicago street four years ago. The shooting was captured on dashcam video, which sparked nationwide calls for justice after its release in 2015.
Lawyers at Friday’s hearing argued over a key issue that decided Van Dyke’s fate: whether aggravated battery is a more serious conviction than second-degree murder. Van Dyke, 40, faced anywhere from probation to more than 96 years in prison. His attorneys argued the officer should be sentenced only on the second-degree murder conviction and deserves probation because he has no criminal history. They also filed about 200 letters of support from Van Dyke’s family and friends.
But prosecutors on Monday filed a document making the case for the aggravated battery conviction, which carries a minimum sentence of six to 30 years in prison for each count.
In the end, Gaughan decided to only sentence Van Dyke on the second-degree murder charge.
The hearing also included testimony from several witnesses. Most of the prosecution’s witnesses were black men who alleged they faced physical and verbal abuse at the hands of Van Dyke and have suffered emotional trauma as a result. Nearly all the prosecution witnesses testified they filed complaints about their incidents, but Van Dyke was never reprimanded.
Edward Nance, the fourth witness, alleged Van Dyke pulled him over in 2007 and tried to open his door while yelling profanities at him. Nance said the officer yanked him out of the car, dragged him to the squad car and threw him face down on the car floor while handcuffed, causing extreme pain that Nance said eventually required surgery.
“I’m in constant pain every day,” Nance said, sobbing through most of his testimony and refusing to look at Van Dyke. Nance eventually won $350,000 in a civil lawsuit against Van Dyke and another officer, but Van Dyke was never punished for the incident.
McDonald’s great-uncle, the Rev. Martin Hunter, took the stand during the hearing to deliver a victim impact statement he wrote through McDonald’s eyes. The statement said McDonald cannot speak with his own voice because of Van Dyke, “who decided he would be judge, jury and executioner.”
“In the short time of my life, I have worked hard to correct the mistakes that I had made,” the first-person statement read in McDonald’s perspective. “But in a matter of six seconds, he [Van Dyke] then took 16 shots, and ended the possibility of this happening forever.”
The defense also presented several witnesses, including Van Dyke’s family members and officers who called him a family man and a hard worker. Former Fraternal Order of Police President Dean Angelo called the 40-year-old man a “big, gentle kid.”
Van Dyke’s 17-year-old daughter, Kaylee Van Dyke, also delivered a statement.
“Over the last three years, I have been bullied, teased, picked on, you name it. All because my dad did his job,” the teenager said, according to Chicago Sun-Times reporter Andy Grimm, who was inside the courtroom while audio and video was banned during the minor’s testimony.
The sentencing comes less than a day after three of Van Dyke’s fellow officers were acquitted on charges they covered up the killing and obscured the investigation. Thomas Gaffney, David March and Joseph Walsh were found not guilty on Thursday of conspiracy, obstruction of justice and official misconduct. In that case, Judge Domenica Stephenson said that the three officers saw the shooting from a different perspective at the scene than what a disturbing video of the incident shows.
Dashcam video from that night recorded Van Dyke shooting at McDonald, who was wielding a 3-inch knife while walking away from the officer. A judge forced the city to publicly release the video more than a year after the shooting, turning attention toward Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who waited until after his re-election to release the footage. Emanuel, who was President Barack Obama’s chief of staff, announced last year that he won’t be running for mayor again. Chicagoans consider the McDonald shooting one the biggest stains on Emanuel’s mayoral legacy.
The video became a key piece of evidence in Van Dyke’s trial, angering Chicagoans and sparking nationwide calls for justice.
Van Dyke is the first Chicago officer in 50 years to be convicted of murder for an on-duty shooting. His attorneys have maintained the officer was wrongly charged and that he was acting legally when he killed McDonald because he feared for his life. During last year’s trial, Van Dyke expressed very little remorse. On Friday, he gave his own statement.
“I have prayed daily for the soul of Laquan McDonald,” he said. “No one wants to take someone’s life, even in defense of their own.”
McDonald’s family responded to Gaughan’s sentencing with disappointment.
“This sentence represents the sentence of a second-class citizen,” said Hunter, McDonald’s great-uncle. The family said the sentence is a step back in the fight for equality.
This article has been updated with details on Friday’s hearing and on Van Dyke’s history.