« US Sentencing Commission releases two new documents on FIRST STEP Act | Main | "Positive Sanctions versus Imprisonment" »

January 19, 2019

Former Chicago cop Jason Van Dyke sentenced in state court to only 81 months for murder of Laquan McDonald

As reported in this lengthy local article, headlined "Jason Van Dyke given relatively lenient sentence of under 7 years in prison for Laquan McDonald shooting," a high-profile killer seems to get a relative low sentence in an Illinois courtroom yesterday. Here are some of the details:

Former Chicago police Officer Jason Van Dyke was sentenced Friday to nearly seven years in prison for the fatal on-duty shooting of Laquan McDonald, bringing to a close one of the most racially fraught and socially significant chapters in recent Chicago history.  Van Dyke remained stoic as Cook County Circuit Judge Vincent Gaughan announced the sentence about 5:30 p.m. after a long day of often emotional testimony. Moments later, Van Dyke’s teenage daughter seated in the gallery burst into tears.

But the relatively lenient six-year, nine-month sentence for second-degree murder counts as a victory for Van Dyke, who could be out of custody in as little as three years, his attorney told reporters.  “He truly felt great,” the attorney, Daniel Herbert, said of Van Dyke. “He was not just relieved, he was happy. It’s the first time I’ve seen the guy — honestly since this whole ordeal started — where he was happy. He’s certainly not happy about going to jail. He’s certainly not happy about missing his family. But he’s happy about the prospect of life ahead of him.”

In October, Van Dyke became the first Chicago police officer in half a century to be convicted of murder in an on-duty shooting.  A jury found him guilty on one count of second-degree murder and 16 counts of aggravated battery — one for each bullet that hit McDonald’s body in October 2014 as the teen walked away from police on Pulaski Road while holding a knife. Graphic police dashboard camera footage of the shooting released more than a year later sparked weeks of chaos and political upheaval, exposing Chicago’s long-standing racial fault lines and exacerbating the already-fraught relationship between police and minority communities.

Though he had sought a sentence about three times lengthier, special prosecutor Joseph McMahon told reporters in the Leighton Criminal Court Building that justice had been served. “I understand the sentence is not exactly what the McDonald and Hunter families wanted,” said McMahon, who requested a prison term of 18 to 20 years.  “But the sentence, like the verdict, does hold the defendant accountable.”...

Gaughan imposed the sentence after a daylong hearing that drew tears from witnesses on the stand and from Van Dyke himself, who sat slouched at the defense table in a bright yellow jail uniform.

While predicting his sentence would disappoint “100 percent” of those in the courtroom, Gaughan made a number of key rulings in favor of the defense. In particular, he sentenced Van Dyke only for the second-degree murder conviction, meaning he will serve just half the sentence if he qualifies for day-for-day good-behavior credit. If instead the judge had sentenced him only on the aggravated battery convictions, Van Dyke could have been subject to a lengthier term behind bars. He also would have had to serve at least 85 percent of that sentence.

In fashioning his decision, Gaughan said the law required him to consider the most serious charge for which Van Dyke was convicted. Common sense, the judge found, dictated that be second-degree murder, not aggravated battery. However, Illinois law considers aggravated battery with a gun the more serious offense of the two, carrying stiffer penalties. “Is it more serious for Laquan McDonald to be shot by a firearm or is it more serious for Laquan McDonald to be murdered by a firearm?” Gaughan said in explaining his reasoning.

Witnesses called by Van Dyke’s legal team at the marathon hearing said the public attention to the case has emotionally shattered his family. “My life has been a nightmare,” Van Dyke’s wife, Tiffany, said in a choked voice, echoing similar testimony from the former officer’s father, sister and 17-year-old daughter. “Life is torture. My heart is broken.”...

Toward the end of the hearing, Van Dyke himself stood and said the day he shot McDonald was the worst of his life. It was the first time he had ever had to fire his weapon in the line of duty, he said, bending his head down to read closely from a handwritten statement. “And I’m very proud of that fact,” he said. “… The last thing I wanted to do was to shoot Laquan McDonald.” Van Dyke said he “tried to make the right decision in a rapidly escalating, dangerous situation.”...

McDonald’s great-uncle, the Rev. Marvin Hunter, read from the witness stand a letter he wrote from the perspective of his grand-nephew, saying McDonald’s death devastated the family. The letter said Hunter used McDonald’s last paycheck from his construction job to buy the suit the teen was buried in.

The killing came just weeks before McDonald was to begin living under the same roof again with his sister and mother, who had overcome drug addiction, he said. “I was so happy for the possibility of that day,” the letter said. “However, Jason Van Dyke … robbed us of this.”

The letter ended with a request to punish Van Dyke for McDonald’s killing, arguing that the former officer had shown no remorse for his actions that night. “What happened to me can never be changed, but other young black men and women will not have to face Jason Van Dyke and his evil and selfish ways,” the letter said. “I’m a real victim of murder and that can never be changed. Please think about me and my life when you sentence this person to prison.”

While the many civilian complaints against Van Dyke were not introduced at trial, prosecutors on Friday called four witnesses — all African-American men — who one after another painted Van Dyke as an abusive, out-of-control officer protected by inept police oversight agencies. One man said Van Dyke choked him to try to get him to spit out a cough drop during a DUI stop. Another said the officer berated him using a racial slur.  A third said Van Dyke deserved prison time simply for the “chaotic” way he handled a traffic stop.

There are so many substantive and procedural elements to this case, one could probably write an entire law review article about the importance and impact of prosecutorial and judicial discretion as it operates within a controversial high-profile case like this one.  For now, I am just inclined to spotlight notable sentencing differences between this case and the arguably comparable case involving former South Carolina police officer Michael Slager who killed Walter Scott on camera.  Van Dyke was convicted by a jury in state court of second-degree murder, and then he was sentenced by a local judge to a prison term of 81 months (with it seems the possibility of released in around 40 months).  Slager, whose sentence was just affirmed on appeal, pleaded guilty to federal civil rights charges after a state jury could not reach a verdict, and then he was sentenced by a federal judge to a prison term of 240 months (with perhaps the possibility of being released in around 200 months).

Notably, I am not the only one noticing how state and federal sentencing justice can play out quite differently.  This notable new local article, headlined "Patti Blagojevich ‘speechless’ Van Dyke sentence is less than half her husband’s," begins this way:

As expected, a slew of political candidates rushed to react to the sentencing of Jason Van Dyke. And then there was Patti Blagojevich, wife of a now-disgraced and imprisoned Illinois governor.

“I am speechless,” Patti Blagojevich tweeted Friday. “A 17 year old is dead and the sentence is less than half of my husbands sentence for discussions with his staff and attorney about political fundraising.”

It could be another attempt to grab the attention of the last person who apparently can get former Gov. Rod Blagojevich out of jail early: President Donald Trump. And it comes after Patti Blagojevich last year made some other moves seemingly tailor-made to catch Trump’s eye, with an appearance on Fox News in which she slammed Obama. She also has tried to connect her husband’s case to Special Counsel Robert Mueller and Former FBI Director James Comey — favorite Trump targets.

Van Dyke’s 81-month sentence means the former Chicago police officer will likely serve a little more than three years in prison after shooting the 17-year-old McDonald 16 times in 2014.

Trump himself may have gotten Patti Blagojevich’s hopes up in December, when he tweeted about another TV interview she had done with Fox News, calling her “the wonderful wife” of the imprisoned governor. Patti retweeted the president, and that was the last tweet she had sent until Friday, more than a month later.

Rod Blagojevich, serving a 14-year sentence on corruption charges, is not due out of prison until May 2024. Though an appellate court tossed five of his convictions in 2015, federal prosecutors say he remains convicted “of the same three charged shakedowns” for which he was first sentenced in 2011.

January 19, 2019 at 02:39 PM | Permalink

Comments

Difference state and federal sentenceing.

This guy got 81 months for killing a guy in cold blood. State

A kid hooked on drugs, get caught, get 15-30 yrs, with no parole. Federal

Mean shile Ex federal Judge gets off with just a misdemeaner. Really.

Posted by: MidWestGuy | Jan 19, 2019 10:33:31 PM

Illinois second degree murder laws charge the offense as a Class 1 felony. This carries a sentence of between four and twenty years in prison. Depending on the leniency of the judge and the circumstances of the crime, a four-year probation term instead of prison may be an option. The maximum fine is $25,000 plus a surcharge of $3,125. Upon release from prison, there is a mandatory two year parole period.


Posted by: Dudley Sharp | Jan 20, 2019 11:26:16 AM

I don't know how the jury managed to conclude that Van Dyke was in fear. In particular, after shooting McDonald 15 times, was he still in fear, so that a 16th shot was needed?

But even after they did that, the way the judge chose to read the law produced an absurd result. Apparently, in Illinois, if you shoot someone and they survive, you will serve more time than if you shoot them, they die, and the jury decides it was 2nd degree murder (which in Illinois is the equivalent of voluntary manslaughter). That's just nuts.

Posted by: William Jockusch | Jan 20, 2019 12:41:11 PM

1. The "only" that appears in the heading was unnecessary;

2. As the judge who acquitted the 3 cops a day prior, no one knew, from the cops' perspective (i.e., let us assume Van Dyke), and not the video's, what an officer's trained, but human reaction would be.

He shot 15 additional times because he lost control and fear overtook--not murderous intent. Mr. Teenager was breaking into trucks and been reported to the dispatcher. High,big. And nuts.

i had a client once who shot 8 times out of "self-defense." I couldn't understand the whole gun thing, but I appreciated the out-of-body experience.

Posted by: fluffyross | Jan 21, 2019 8:49:50 AM

Post a comment

In the body of your email, please indicate if you are a professor, student, prosecutor, defense attorney, etc. so I can gain a sense of who is reading my blog. Thank you, DAB