The white Chicago police officer who gunned down a black teenager in 2014 was sentenced on Friday to 6¾ years in prison, bringing an end to a historic case that was centered on a shocking dashboard-camera video and fueled national debates about race and policing and law enforcement's “code of silence.”
Jason Van Dyke was convicted last year of second-degree murder and 16 counts of aggravated battery — one for each bullet he fired at Laquan McDonald.
Moments before learning the sentence, Van Dyke acknowledged the teen's death, telling the judge that “as a God-fearing man and father, I will have to live with this the rest of my life.”
The sentence was less than half of the penalty that had been sought by prosecutors, who asked for 18 to 20 years. But it went far beyond the request of defense attorneys, who argued that Van Dyke, 40, could be released on probation.
Judge Vincent Gaughan did not characterize Van Dyke's decision to open fire, saying only that it changed both Laquan’s and Van Dyke's families forever. “You can see the pain ... on both families,” he said.
He predicted that no one involved in the case would be pleased with his decision: “I assume 100% of people will be disappointed.”
Illinois judges are typically required to sentence defendants for the most serious crime of which they are convicted. The defense wanted Van Dyke sentenced primarily for the second-degree murder charge, which carries a mandatory minimum prison term of four years. Prosecutors wanted the judge to focus on the 16 aggravated battery counts because each carries a mandatory minimum prison term of six years, and sentences for each may have to be served consecutively.
Earlier in the hearing, several black motorists testified that Van Dyke had used a racial slur and excessive force during traffic stops in the years before the 2014 shooting.
One of the witnesses, Ed Nance, struggled to maintain his composure as he looked across the room to identify Van Dyke. Testifying about a 2007 traffic stop, he said the officer cursed and slammed him on the car's hood, grabbed him by the arms and pulled him to the squad car.
Hours later, Van Dyke's relatives tried to defend him, saying he's a good father and husband who goes out of his way to help and is not racist.
The issue of race has loomed over the case for more than four years, although it was rarely raised at trial. One of the only instances was during opening statements, when special prosecutor Joseph McMahon told jurors that Van Dyke saw “a black boy walking down the street” who had “the audacity to ignore the police.”
Friday's sentencing came a day after a different judge acquitted three officers accused of trying to conceal what happened to protect Van Dyke, who was the first Chicago officer found guilty in an on-duty shooting in half a century and probably the first ever in the shooting of an African American.
At the sentencing, Laquan’s uncle read a moving letter written from the slain teen's perspective, telling the court that Van Dyke killed him without provocation.
“I am a 17-year-old boy, and I am a victim of murder,” Marvin Hunter said. “I am unable to speak in my own voice” because an officer “thought he would become judge, jury and executioner.”
In asking for a long sentence, Hunter added: “Why should this person who ended my life forever ... who has never asked for forgiveness ... be free when I am dead for forever?”
Van Dyke's wife, Tiffany, asked the judge for leniency. “His life is over. Please, please. He has paid the price already…. I beg for the least amount of time.”
During her testimony, Jason Van Dyke wiped his nose and eyes with a tissue while seated at the defense table in a yellow jail jumpsuit.
One of his daughters blamed the media for shaming police officers “for doing their jobs.” Kaylee Van Dyke, 17, said police officers don't care about people's color — “they care about your safety.”
Keith Thompson described his brother-in-law as a “gentle giant” and not a “monster.” Thompson, who is black and whose wife is the sister of Van Dyke's wife, said he had never seen anything to indicate that Van Dyke is racist in the 13 years they've been acquainted.
On Thursday, Cook County Judge Domenica Stephenson cleared former Officer Joseph Walsh, former Det. David March and Officer Thomas Gaffney on charges of obstruction of justice, official misconduct and conspiracy.
Stephenson said the video that sparked protests and a federal investigation of the police force showed only one viewpoint of the confrontation between Van Dyke and the teen armed with a small knife. She rejected prosecution arguments that the video demonstrated officers were lying when they described Laquan as moving even after he was shot.
The video appeared to show the teen collapsing in a heap after the first few shots and moving in large part because bullets kept striking his body for 10 more seconds.