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Chicago police officer's murder trial could come down to jury's view of video

Chicago police officer's murder trial could come down to jury's view of video
Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke dabs his eyes as he testifies in his murder trial Tuesday in Chicago. (Antonio Perez / Associated Press)

From the moment Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke was charged with first-degree murder in the 2014 shooting of Laquan McDonald, the case has centered around the video.

As attorneys prepare to make their final arguments Thursday, the question is what jurors will think after watching the video of the fatal shooting repeatedly over the course of the three-week trial.

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The video of the white police officer shooting the black teenager 16 times was key in charges being brought against Van Dyke in November 2015, more than a year after McDonald's death. Official police accounts of the Oct. 20, 2014, shooting described McDonald as lunging toward officers with the knife. The video shows Van Dyke stepping forward and opening fire as McDonald walks at an angle away from him, a small knife in his right hand, which hangs at his side. McDonald spins and crumples to the ground. The barrage of gunfire continues, smoke coming off his prone body.

Testimony in the trial concluded Wednesday, with defense attorneys rolling out and entering into evidence a squad car tire that McDonald punctured with his knife moments before Van Dyke arrived. Prosecutors read into the record what Van Dyke told Chicago Police Det. David March shortly after the shooting, including a statement that Van Dyke made that McDonald had raised a knife at him and kept it pointed at him even after he was on the ground — neither of which is seen in the video.

That video will almost certainly be played again Thursday. Prosecutors also will probably emphasize that, among the nearly dozen other officers who encountered McDonald after police responded to a report of someone breaking into vehicles, none opened fired.

An image from dashboard video shows Laquan McDonald, right, moments before he was fatally shot by Officer Jason Van Dyke in Chicago.
An image from dashboard video shows Laquan McDonald, right, moments before he was fatally shot by Officer Jason Van Dyke in Chicago. (Associated Press)

If defense attorneys show the video, it will be to remind the jurors that as an apparently erratic McDonald walked down the middle of a street, the knife flashing in his right hand, one sudden movement and he could have been upon the officer with a deadly weapon. They may talk about what Van Dyke said he saw but that the camera could not have captured — that McDonald was "without expression," his eyes "bugging out of his head" and looking "right through me." They are likely to point out that the hallucinogenic drug PCP was found in McDonald's system and point to other people who testified about previous violent encounters with McDonald.

Defense attorneys also may point to Van Dyke's own words on the stand: "The video doesn't show my perspective."

It isn't the first time jurors at a high-profile trial in Cook County Circuit Judge Vincent Gaughan's courtroom are being told by defense attorneys to not entirely believe their eyes. Prosecutors made video the centerpiece of pop star R. Kelly's 2008 child pornography trial, telling jurors it showed the singer engaging in sex acts with an underage girl. The defense told jurors the man in the 27-minute video wasn't R. Kelly, and jurors ultimately acquitted him.

In Van Dyke's case, the video already has made an impact in the city since its release in November 2015. Chicago's police superintendent and Cook County's top prosecutor both lost their jobs — one fired by the mayor and the other ousted by voters. It also led to a U.S. Justice Department investigation that found a "pervasive cover-up culture" and prompted plans for far-reaching police reforms.

One witness who could figure prominently in closing arguments is Dr. Laurence Miller, a psychologist who interviewed Van Dyke for his legal team. After Miller testified, as expected, that Van Dyke firing his weapon was a "reasonable response" to what he perceived as a deadly threat posed by McDonald, he said two things that prosecutors might seize on to show Van Dyke's state of mind before he even climbed out of his squad SUV. First, said Miller, after hearing about what was happening on his radio, Van Dyke told him that he told his partner, "Oh my God, we're going to have to shoot the guy."

Then, testified Miller, Van Dyke recounted to him how he wondered aloud why other officers at the scene had not already shot McDonald after he punctured the tire of a police cruiser.

Prosecutors could be expected to use both statements to help show the jurors Van Dyke's state of mind, and perhaps suggest he had already made a decision on what he was going to do.

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