On Friday, a jury convicted Jason Van Dyke, a white Chicago police officer, of the second-degree murder of black 17-year-old Laquan McDonald.
McDonald was shot 16 times while holding a small folding knife nearly four years ago, on October 20th, 2014. The jury deliberated for close to eight hours before coming to a decision.
The McDonald case began receiving national attention after journalists and activists noted discrepancies in the official police narrative. Calls to release the dashboard camera video, including a Freedom of Information Act request, were met with refusals from the city for over a year, until a Cook County judge ordered the video released to the public in November of 2015. The video showed McDonald walking away from the officers when Van Dyke opened fire; previously, police claimed McDonald lunged at the police before he was shot.
After the video became public, Van Dyke was charged with first-degree murder—the first time a Chicago cop received that charge for an on-duty incident in nearly 35 years. Before the jury read its verdict, the judge explained to the courtroom that second-degree murder is not "really a lesser charge." Jurors were told to convict on second-degree if they concluded that Van Dyke thought he was behaving reasonably at the time. Van Dyke was also found guilty of 16 counts of aggravated battery, one for each shot, and acquitted of a count of official misconduct. He is the first Chicago officer convicted of murder for an on-duty shooting in almost five decades.
Trials for officers who shoot civilians are rare, and convictions are even more so, despite the fact that police kill thousands of people each year. When the victims are dead, they can't provide their side of the story for a jury. Van Dyke and his lawyers used this, bringing in witnesses to testify to McDonald's past drug use and violence. Additionally, precedent allows officers a wide latitude of force, and many jurors are willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. That's one of many reasons why even the cops who do go to trial so rarely face conviction.
The fallout has been felt across Chicago: Mayor Rahm Emanuel fired police superintendent Garry McCarthy, the deputy chief retired, three other officers were criminally charged for covering up the shooting, Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez badly lost her re-election campaign, internal reports and recommendations called for the firing of multiple officers, a Department of Justice probe found that the Chicago Police Department often engaged in excessive force and civilian abuses, and Emanuel declined to seek re-election.