CHICAGO – Former Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke was sentenced Friday to more than six years in prison in the controversial 2014 shooting death of Laquan McDonald, a black teen whose killing by the white police officer sparked public outrage in the nation’s third-largest city and beyond.
Van Dyke was convicted in October of second degree murder and 16 counts of aggravated battery, one for each shot he fired. He faced up to 96 years in prison.
Prosecutors had asked Judge Vincent Gaughan to sentence Van Dyke to a prison term of 18 to 20 years. His defense team had asked that he be released on probation.
Gaughan sentenced him to 81 months, or six years nine months. Illinois state law requires he serve at least 50 percent of the sentence under the 2nd degree murder statute. He’s already served about three months as he awaited sentencing, so Van Dyke could potentially be out of prison in a little more than three years.
“This is a tragedy for both sides,” Gaughan said.
Police called to a parking lot on the Southwest Side of Chicago on the evening of Oct. 20, 2014 on reports of a person breaking into trucks and stealing radios arrived to find the 17-year-old McDonald walking erratically in the street with a small knife.
Van Dyke pulled up to the scene, got out of his squad car and within seconds opened fire.
“Jason Van Dyke’s conduct has been devastating for the McDonald-Hunter family,” Special Prosecutor Joseph McMahon said. “His conduct has been devastating to the Chicago Police Department as well.”
Authorities said after the shooting that McDonald had lunged at Van Dyke with the knife and assaulted other officers. Police dashcam video appears to show McDonald veering away from officers as Van Dyke opened fire.
Van Dyke’s defense team gave the court dozens of letters from family, friends and the public asking Gaughan to show mercy.
In court Friday, Van Dyke’s wife said her husband had already paid a steep price. She said she feared for his survival if he’s sent to prison
“My biggest fear is that somebody would kill my husband for something he did as a police officer, something he was trained to do,” Tiffany Van Dye said. “There was no malice, no hatred on that night. He was simply doing his job.”
Van Dyke’s two daughters wrote that they’ve endured heartache and bullying at school since the incident. His older daughter, Kaylee Van Dyke, 17, said the media and Chicago politicians have unfairly maligned her father.
“I have been bullied, teased, picked on, threatened, you name it, all because my dad did his job,” she said.
Ken Watt, a retired Chicago police officer, testified that Van Dyke had earned a reputation as “hard-working, diligent, and thoughtful” among his colleagues.
“Jason was a good police officer,” Watt said. “He did everything he was trained to do, and there are a bunch of people don’t do that. But he did what he was trained to do and that’s what got him in this mess. People get the police that they seek. And God help the City of Chicago.”
Prosecutors called several witnesses to try to make their case that Van Dyke had caused enormous anguish for McDonald’s family, and had a long history of using excessive force.
The Rev. Marvin Hunter, McDonald’s uncle, read a family impact statement written in the teen’s voice. McDonald, who was a ward of the state at the time of his death, was weeks away from being reunited with his mother.
“I am a real victim of murder and that can never be changed,” Hunter read. “Jason Van Dyke, with his cold callousness and disregard for the life of a young back man, without me provoking him, robbed us.”
Ed Nance, 49, testified that Van Dyke roughed him up during a 2007 traffic stop in which he was ticketed for having a missing license plate – a charge that was later dismissed.
Nance said he incurred thousands of dollars in medical expenses from shoulder injuries he suffered when Van Dyke pulled him out of the car by the arm, dragged him around and “threw me face-first on the car” before handcuffing him.
Nance filed a federal lawsuit against the police department alleging Van Dyke and his partner violated his civil rights and used excessive force. A jury awarded him $350,000 in damages.
Nance said he still suffers shoulder pain from his injuries, and has suffered from anxiety and depression since the encounter.
Jeremy Mayers, who was arrested by Van Dyke for driving under the influence in 2011, testified that the officer choked him when he refused the officer’s command to spit out a cough drop.
Another man, Vidale Joy, said Van Dyke held a gun to his temple during a 2005 traffic stop and screamed a racial epithet at him.
“It was as if he was just infuriated, just out of his mind,” Joy said.
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Three of Van Dyke’s colleagues were found not guilty Thursday of conspiring to cover up details of the shooting.
Officer Thomas Gaffney, former Officer Joseph Walsh and former Detective David March had been charged with conspiracy, obstruction of justice and official misconduct.
Prosecutors said the three filed false reports to protect Van Dyke.
The shooting of McDonald, a troubled teen who had been in and out of the juvenile justice system, further widened the chasm between police and Chicago’s African-American population, who make up nearly a third of the city’s population.
It was one of several officer-involved shootings around the nation that spurred a broader conversation about policing in black communities.
Police and city leaders initially resisted releasing the chilling dashcam video. It was made public only after a city activist and a journalist sued.
The court-ordered release, 400 days after the shooting, sparked citywide protests. The same day prosecutors announced charges. The city had agreed to pay a $5 million settlement to McDonald’s family before the video’s release.
William Calloway, the activist whose lawsuit compelled the video’s release, said the sentence was too lenient.
“What Jason Van Dyke in shooting Laquan McDonald 16 times, he deserves to spend the rest of his life in prison,” Calloway said. “To me in my eyes, Jason Van Dyke is a racist murderer.”
At trial, Van Dyke’s defense attorney highlighted McDonald’s reportedly erratic and menacing behavior in the minutes leading up to the shooting. Authorities said the teen had PCP in his system.
Attorney Daniel Herbert told the jury that Van Dyke was terrified and opened fire to preserve his and his colleagues’ lives.
McDonald ignored repeated calls from police to drop the knife. Officers followed the teen for several blocks as he wound his way through city streets. At one point, he scratched the windshield and popped the tire of a police squad car.
“Mr. McDonald is not blameless in the incident,” Herbert said in pre-sentencing filings.
Dean Angelo, a former Chicago police union president, said that Van Dyke “is not the monster people make him out to be.”
“It was the perfect storm that night… if a knife is dropped, we’re not here,” Angelo said.
Van Dyke was initially charged with first-degree murder, but the jurors ultimately convicted him of the lesser charge of second-degree murder.
The video kindled weeks of peaceful protests in downtown Chicago and led to the firing of Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy and, eventually, the election loss of Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel saw his standing in the black community plummet.
Emanuel resisted calls to step down and vowed to repair frayed relations between the police department and the African-American community. But he announced in September that he would not seek a third term in the mayoral election next month.
Since the shooting, the department has launched new de-escalation training, made it policy to release nearly all video of police-involved shooting incidents within 60 to 90 days, and required all officers to wear body cameras.
The Illinois Attorney General’s Office sued the city in federal court in 2017 to implement a court-monitored consent decree aimed at ensuring reforms in the police department are carried out.
State and city officials settled on parameters of the decree last year. It includes requirements that the police department publish use-of-force data monthly, tighten policy on the use of Tasers and document each time officers draw their weapons.
Follow USA TODAY national correspondent Aamer Madhani on Twitter: @AamerISmad