CHICAGO (Reuters) – The white Chicago policeman who shot a black teen 16 times in 2014 committed an act of unjustifiable murder, a prosecutor told jurors on Thursday at the close of a trial that has intensified a debate on race relations and police use of force in the third-largest U.S. city.
Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke attends his trial in the shooting death of Laquan McDonald, in Chicago, Illinois, U.S., October 3, 2018. John J. Kim/Chicago Tribune/Pool via REUTERS
But a defense lawyer for Jason Van Dyke, 40, said the officer feared for his safety when he began firing at 17-year-old Laquan McDonald, who was carrying a knife at the time.
Van Dyke, 40, is charged with first-degree murder, aggravated battery and official misconduct. He is the first Chicago police officer to face a murder charge for an on-duty incident in decades and could be sentenced to life in prison if convicted.
The jury is also permitted to consider the lesser charge of second-degree murder as an alternative.
The release of a video in 2015 that showed McDonald’s shooting sparked days of protest in Chicago, part of a wave of high-profile police killings of black men that has prompted a national conversation about race and policing.
The case will largely turn on whether jurors believe Van Dyke reasonably feared for his safety when he shot McDonald.
Gleason told jurors on Thursday that an officer can only use deadly force “when it’s reasonable and necessary,” a standard that she said Van Dyke had fallen short of meeting.
“This case has been about exaggerating the threat and trying to hide behind the police shield,” prosecutor Jody Gleason told jurors on Thursday. “Why? Because there’s no justification for shooting Laquan McDonald that night. Not one shot. Not the first shot. Not the 16th shot.”
Prosecutors say the video, taken from a dashboard camera and repeatedly shown to the jury, shows McDonald was not moving toward Van Dyke when he began firing and that he continued to shoot after McDonald fell to the ground.
But Van Dyke’s attorney Daniel Herbert argued the video did not show the scene from Van Dyke’s perspective. Van Dyke, he argued, arrived as the “threat level” was rising and had been trained to continue shooting until the threat had ended.
Van Dyke took the witness stand in his own defense on Tuesday, telling jurors he felt threatened because McDonald held a knife and was advancing toward him at the time he began firing.
Van Dyke’s lawyers have portrayed McDonald as an out-of-control, dangerous criminal who was under the influence of a drug.
The trial is now in its third week. The 12-person jury includes one black member.
Reporting by Suzannah Gonzales in Chicago; editing by Jonathan Oatis