Amid the din of the Kavanaugh confirmation hearings, the country barely noticed a significant event that took place on October 5 in a nondescript courtroom in Chicago. A jury of 12 Chicagoans convicted a police officer, Jason Van Dyke, of second-degree murder and 16 counts of aggravated battery—one charge for each of the rounds he fired at 17-year-old Laquan McDonald on October 20, 2014.
The conviction of an on-duty police officer, let alone a murder conviction, is an anomaly in an era in which law-enforcement expects impunity and almost always receives it. The horrific dashboard-video footage (warning: graphic) combined with the compelling father-son testimony of Jose and Xavier Torres—the only two civilian witnesses to testify—persuaded the jury where the carefully rehearsed testimony of Van Dyke’s fellow officers did not.
The Van Dyke trial offers activists concerned about police violence and police-community relations a glimmer of hope. The trial marks a potential turning point at which jurors, prosecutors, and the public at large rejected the law-enforcement narrative and declared that respecting the police does not necessitate abandoning accountability when their actions require it.
The difference in this trial is summed up in the post-verdict statements of the jurors. One, identified only as a white woman, explained, “It seemed kind of like [Van Dyke] was finally giving the play after they had been rehearsing with him for weeks. [He was] staring at us, trying to win our sympathy when he testified.” Another juror, a white male, said they were unconvinced by the Chicago Police Department testimony: “We just didn’t buy it.”
Too often the actions of law enforcement, especially when they end in fatalities, are considered above questioning. The officer declares that he or she perceived some threat, as Van Dyke did here, and thus the use of lethal force was appropriate. In this trial, jurors—and the prosecutors who brought this to trial—injected some sanity into the process.
Is a stoned man with a three-inch knife walking away from officers an imminent threat? Do police have no options between doing nothing and emptying the magazine of their pistols? Must the assertion that a police officer perceived a threat go unchallenged? To all these questions, the jury answered “No.” That is a landmark statement from the jurors.
A police officer has not been convicted of homicide in Cook County in over half a century. Over the past decade, almost every high-profile instance of a suspect’s death at police hands—Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, Terence Crutcher, Philando Castile, and far too many others—has resulted in the endorsement of law enforcement’s version of events and a lack of prosecution or conviction for the officers involved.