Chicago trial

Ac­tivists hope mur­der con­vic­tion sends mes­sage to those in power

Albany Times Union - Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - By Errin Haines Whack As­so­ci­ated Press

Po­lice of­fi­cer found guilty of mur­der for fa­tally shoot­ing 17-year-old 16 times.

A rare scene in the Amer­i­can jus­tice sys­tem un­folded Fri­day in a Chicago court­house: A white of­fi­cer stood be­fore a mostly white jury and was con­victed of killing a black teenager.

It was the sec­ond such ver­dict na­tion­ally in two months. Ja­son Van Dyke’s guilty con­vic­tion for sec­ond-de­gree mur­der and mul­ti­ple counts of ag­gra­vated bat­tery for fa­tally shoot­ing 17-year-old Laquan Mcdon­ald 16 times came two months af­ter a Texas of­fi­cer was con­victed in the killing of a 15-year-old un­armed black boy.

The pair of guilty ver­dicts could sig­nal a shift in mo­men­tum af­ter years of de­layed ar­rests, non-in­dict­ments and not guilty ver­dicts. Ac­tivists and ad­vo­cates say that their ef­forts, along with the ubiq­uity of cell­phone cam­era ev­i­dence, could be chang­ing the power bal­ance be­tween po­lice and black com­mu­ni­ties.

“We’re start­ing to see some ver­dicts that are in line with jus­tice,” said Rashad Robin­son, ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor of Color of Change, a civil rights group that has sup­ported elect­ing re­form-minded dis­trict at­tor­neys in cities such as Chicago and Philadel­phia. “No ver­dict is go­ing to bring Laquan back or change the way he was taken from his fam­ily, friends or com­mu­nity. But be­ing able to start send­ing a mes­sage to law en­force­ment that they are not above the law is im­por­tant.”

It was not an out­come some ex­pected, despite ev­i­dence in­clud­ing a video of Mcdon­ald’s shoot­ing. It is ex­tremely rare for po­lice of­fi­cers to be tried and con­victed of mur­der for shoot­ings that oc­curred while they were on duty. Be­fore the con­vic­tion Fri­day, only six non-fed­eral po­lice of­fi­cers had been con­victed of mur­der in such cases — and four of those were over­turned — since 2005, ac­cord­ing to data com­piled by crim­i­nol­o­gist and Bowl­ing Green State Univer­sity pro­fes­sor Phil Stin­son.

Sev­eral cases in the past few years — in­clud­ing the po­lice-in­volved deaths of Michael Brown in Fer­gu­son, Mo.; Eric Gar­ner in New York; Tamir Rice in Cleve­land; and Fred­die Gray in Bal­ti­more — have ended in dis­ap­point­ment for many in the black com­mu­nity, as white of­fi­cers have gone un­pun­ished in their deaths.

Black Lives Mat­ter built mo­men­tum from that out­rage af­ter 18-year-old Brown, who was un­armed, was fa­tally shot by a white Fer­gu­son po­lice of­fi­cer in Au­gust 2013. Fu­eled by so­cial me­dia and nightly street protests, thou­sands of young peo­ple pressed for change in how po­lice deal with black com­mu­ni­ties. Protests spread around the coun­try when other African-amer­i­cans were killed by po­lice. They de­manded ar­rests, in­dict­ments, con­vic­tions and po­lice re­form. The Jus­tice Depart­ment in­ves­ti­gated mul­ti­ple po­lice de­part­ments and found pat­terns of racial dis­crim­i­na­tion.

The Mcdon­ald case fu­eled a racially charged at­mos­phere in Chicago, and the city an­tic­i­pated vi­o­lence if the ver­dict had gone the other way. Po­lice of­fi­cers lined the streets and ac­tivists con­verged down­town in an­tic­i­pa­tion of the ver­dict.

“If ju­rors would not con­vict a po­lice of­fi­cer who shot a man ... 16 times, when that man was not threat­en­ing the of­fi­cer in any way, when would they con­vict?” said Ge­orge­town Univer­sity law pro­fes­sor and for­mer fed­eral pros­e­cu­tor Paul But­ler. “The con­cern was that it was a very real pos­si­bil­ity, based on the way these cases usu­ally go. If the ju­rors hadn’t con­victed Van Dyke, it would have been an out­rage, but it would have been a fa­mil­iar out­rage.”

Van Dyke, 40, was the first Chicago of­fi­cer to be con­victed of mur­der for an on-duty shoot­ing in 48 years. He was taken into cus­tody mo­ments af­ter the ver­dict was read.

It was the cul­mi­na­tion of a se­ries of events that con­vulsed Chicago in the af­ter­math of the 2014 shoot­ing. City of­fi­cials re­sisted for months re­leas­ing a dash­board cam­era video that showed Van Dyke fir­ing 16 shots at the teenager, who was walk­ing away from of­fi­cers. Po­lice said Mcdon­ald was armed only with a small knife.

The city erupted in protest af­ter the video be­came pub­lic. Mayor Rahm Emanuel fired the po­lice su­per­in­ten­dent and a Jus­tice Depart­ment in­ves­ti­ga­tion found a “per­va­sive coverup cul­ture” in the Chicago Po­lice Depart­ment, which is headed for fed­eral re­forms.

The Cook County dis­trict at­tor­ney, Anita Al­varez, was ousted from of­fice in the 2016 pri­mary elec­tion for fail­ing to seek timely charges against

Van Dyke. This sum­mer, Emanuel an­nounced that he would not seek re-elec­tion as strained re­la­tions with the black com­mu­nity took its toll on his po­lit­i­cal prospects.

The ver­dict marks one step in the fight for racial jus­tice and progress, said Char­lene Carruthers, an ac­tivist and the found­ing na­tional direc­tor of Black Youth Project 100.

“We still have a lot more work to do,” Carruthers said. “This is a mo­ment where peo­ple are see­ing that the blue wall that ex­ists in Chicago has a crack in it. This is an op­por­tu­nity to con­tinue our or­ga­niz­ing and act on the vi­sion­ary de­mands that we have to trans­form our com­mu­nity.”

Civil rights leader the Rev. Jesse Jack­son called the ver­dict a “small sign of progress” in Chicago, which leads the na­tion’s largest cities in po­li­cein­volved killings.

“The peo­ple’s cup has run over with these po­lice vi­o­la­tions of peo­ple’s rights,” he said. “Peo­ple were hop­ing for the best and ex­pect­ing the worst.”

Jack­son lamented the lack of di­ver­sity on the jury — which had a lone African-amer­i­can, although blacks make up a third of Chicago’s pop­u­la­tion — and won­dered whether Van Dyke’s con­vic­tion would over­shadow the need for over­all re­form.

“They were killing be­fore, and sub­se­quently,” Jack­son said. “The sys­tem con­tin­ues un­abated.”

But ac­tivist Robin­son says the re­cent ver­dict sends a mes­sage to po­lice and oth­ers in power.

“Those in power know there will be con­se­quences for not valu­ing black lives.”

It was not an out­come some ex­pected, despite ev­i­dence in­clud­ing a video of Mcdon­ald’s shoot­ing. It is ex­tremely rare for po­lice of­fi­cers to be tried and con­victed of mur­der for shoot­ings that oc­curred while they were on duty.

Matt Marton / As­so­ci­ated Press

Peo­ple re­act out­side of City Hall af­ter a jury con­victed white Chicago po­lice Of­fi­cer Ja­son Van Dyke of sec­ond­de­gree mur­der in the 2014 shoot­ing of black teenager Laquan Mcdon­ald on Fri­day in Chicago.

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