CHICAGO: A white Chicago police officer was found guilty of murder Friday for fatally shooting a black teenager and triggering months of protests in America’s third largest city.
Jason Van Dyke fired 16 bullets into 17-year-old Laquan McDonald during the 2014 confrontation. The slaying was captured on the police video that showed the knife-wielding teen appearing to walk away from officers when he was shot.
The 12-person jury reached a verdict just one day after beginning deliberations. They chose to dispense of first-degree murder charges, and instead convicted Van Dyke of lesser second-degree murder.
The officer was also found guilty of 16 counts of aggravated battery with a firearm — for each bullet he fired — and acquitted of one count of official misconduct.
“This is a victory for America,” said McDonald’s great-uncle and family spokesman Marvin Hunter.
“Laquan McDonald represents all of the victims that suffered what he suffered.”
The city of Chicago had already reached a $5 million civil settlement with McDonald’s family.
A jubilant crowd — some of whom told local media that they were in shock over the outcome — grew steadily in the city’s downtown business district, demanding additional resignations of city officials and more police reform.
‘Historic for Chicago’
“This is historic for Chicago,” community organizer Janette Wilson told reporters.
“I would hope that the people of Chicago will really look at this case as a model for the nation.”
The city had been on edge in advance of the verdict since the case had already caused political upheaval and months of earlier protests.
City officials and business owners beefed up security as the trial neared an end, while thousands of police officers were deployed to the streets.
Lead prosecutor Joe McMahon said he hoped the verdict “begins a new chapter in the relationship between law enforcement and the community.”
“It provides validation and a sense of justice for many residents,” he said.
The jury reached its verdict after 10 days of testimony in which the officer claimed self-defence, while the prosecution accused him of making a rash and unjustified decision to shoot.
The trial had hinged on the video footage showing Van Dyke continuing to fire bullet after bullet — even after the teen falls to the ground and lies motionless.
Crucially, Van Dyke is also seen taking steps toward McDonald before firing, even though he testified that he shot because the teen had gotten too close with his knife.
Several jurors told reporters under a condition of anonymity that convicting had been straightforward — although they went for the lesser second-degree murder verdict because they believed Van Dyke’s claim that he felt threatened.
“Instead of escalating the situation, he should have de-escalated,” one said, however.
Van Dyke was taken straight into custody. Under Illinois state law, he faces four to 20 years for the murder finding while the aggravated battery with a firearm carries six to 30 years.
The head of Chicago’s police union, which funded Van Dyke’s defence, promised an appeal and criticized the jury for punishing an officer for simply doing his job.
Van Dyke’s attorney Dan Herbert said the officer had been made into a “sacrificial lamb” by politicians who wanted to appease an angry public.
Van Dyke wasn’t criminally charged until the day the video was made public — which itself did not happen until a year after the shooting and only after a judge forced city officials to do so.
The shooting became emblematic of decades of police abuse in the Midwestern city — often targeted at Chicago’s African-American population.
There were months of protests and calls for resignations. Activists accused city officials of an attempted cover-up.
Similar cases of deadly police encounters between police and African Americans have rarely been prosecuted. And when officers have been charged, they have rarely been convicted.
In Chicago, the aftermath of the McDonald shooting convulsed the city’s politics and led to significant changes in its police department.
The city’s police chief and lead prosecutor both lost their jobs.
The new police chief, Eddie Johnson, recommended that seven officers be fired for filing false reports about McDonald’s shooting.
Three of the officers have been charged with conspiring to mislead about the threat McDonald had posed. They are awaiting trial.