Editor's note: This page was last updated Sept. 20, 2018.
Chicago hardly noticed when a white cop fatally shot a black 17-year-old in the middle of the street in October 2014. Laquan McDonald, who was carrying a knife, was the 14th person the city’s police had shot dead that year, and the days that followed saw no newspaper obituaries, no press conferences, and no large protests.
But McDonald’s death rocked Chicago 13 months later when a judge ordered the city to release a police dashcam video of the shooting. The infamous recording shows Officer Jason Van Dyke exit a police SUV and — within seconds — fire 16 shots at McDonald. Police reported McDonald had been swinging a knife at officers, but the video shows the teen walking away.
The fallout was swift: Officers were accused of a cover-up, the top cop was fired, and the U.S. Justice Department launched a probe into the city’s police department.
Now, Van Dyke is on trial for first-degree murder. Cops around the country have almost never faced prison time for on-duty shooting deaths. Will this be the rare officer found guilty of murder?
Whatever the verdict, the outcome could have profound consequences for the city.
WBEZ Chicago and the Chicago Tribune teamed up to make a podcast that examines the shooting, the fallout, and the trial. Get the backstory with our first episodes and stay tuned for coverage as the trial proceeds.
Here are answers to some of the most commonly asked questions about the shooting and trial.
What's in the video?
The video shows Van Dyke shooting McDonald.
The nearly seven-minute video, recorded on a police dashcam, mostly shows officers on their way to McDonald, who was suspected of breaking into trucks and slashing the tire of a police car. The final minutes show Van Dyke exit a police SUV and open fire within seconds. McDonald falls to the ground, bullets keep hitting him, and an officer eventually kicks away the knife in his hand. McDonald lies on the pavement and receives no immediate aid. The video has no audio.
What was Van Dyke charged with?
Murder, aggravated battery, and official misconduct.
Thirteen months after the shooting, Cook County prosecutors charged Van Dyke with first-degree murder. The announcement came hours before the city released a video of the shooting. A grand jury later indicted the officer on six counts of first-degree murder and one count of official misconduct. In 2017, a special grand jury brought those same charges plus 16 counts of aggravated battery — one for each shot to McDonald. On Sept. 17, just before opening statements, prosecutors dropped four of the six counts of first-degree murder.
Is Van Dyke in jail while awaiting trial?
No. Van Dyke posted bond and has been living at home.
Bail was set at $1.5 million. To get out of jail, Van Dyke needed to post 10 percent of that. After Van Dyke spent six nights in jail, the officer’s father posted the required $150,000. Van Dyke, who has a wife and two children, was suspended without pay. He has been employed by the union representing rank-and-file officers, the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 7. On Sept. 6, Cook County Judge Vincent Gaughan raised bail $2,000 because of what Van Dyke said in interviews with the media days before the start of the trial. Van Dyke posted the $200 bail and walked out of the courthouse hours later.
Was there a police cover-up?
That will be determined at a different trial.
Three other Chicago cops — Detective David March and Officers Thomas Gaffney and Joseph Walsh — face charges of conspiring to cover-up for Van Dyke in the shooting. March was CPD’s lead investigator on the shooting. Walsh was Van Dyke’s partner that night. Gaffney was one of eight other officers on the scene during the shooting. March and Walsh have both resigned. The conspiracy trial is scheduled to start on Nov. 26.
Why did it taken so long for the trial to start?
It’s actually not that unusual for Cook County murder defendants to wait years for a trial.
Lawyers on both sides have been in the courtroom arguing for nearly three years about almost everything, including defense motions to dismiss the charges, the types of evidence and witnesses that will be allowed, and whether to relocate the trial.
Who will decide the verdict?
Van Dyke’s lawyers had until Sept. 14, 2018 to waive his right to a jury. Eight women and four men will now decide Van Dyke's fate.
Who will be witnesses in the trial?
So far, mostly police officers and various experts.
The prosecution called more than 20 witnesses during the first four days of testimony, including many current and former police officers who were on the scene the night of the shooting. They also put doctors, nurses, and paramedics on the stand, as well as experts in ballistics and video analysis.Van Dyke’s lawyers are expected to start calling witnesses on Sept. 24.
How long will the trial last?
Jury trials are typically held nearly every weekday until the verdict. The prosecution and defense will present their cases, call witnesses, and make closing arguments. Then, the jury takes time to deliberate.
How many years could Van Dyke be in prison?
Zero to life.
If acquitted, Van Dyke will not go to prison. If found guilty, the punishment will depend on the crime — murder charges carry a much stronger punishment than official misconduct — and on the number of counts. Each crime also has a range of sentences, and a judge considers factors like the severity of the crime and any previous criminal history.