Ex-Chicago cop set for sentencing

CHICAGO – A Cook County judge is scheduled to sentence former Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke on Friday in the controversial 2014 shooting death of Laquan McDonald, a black teen whose killing by the white police officer sparked public outrage in the nation’s third-largest city.

Van Dyke was convicted in October of second degree murder and 16 counts of aggravated battery, one for each shot he fired. He faces up to 96 years in prison.

Prosecutors have asked Judge Vincent Gaughan to sentence Van Dyke to at least 18 years in prison. His defense attorney has asked that he be released on probation.

Police called to a parking lot on the Southwest Side of Chicago on the evening of Oct. 20, 2014 on reports of a person breaking into trucks and stealing radios arrived to find the 17-year-old McDonald walking erratically in the street with a small knife.

Van Dyke pulled up to the scene, got out of his squad car and within seconds opened fire.

Authorities said initially after the shooting that McDonald had lunged at Van Dyke with the knife and assaulted other officers. Police dashcam video appears to show McDonald veering away from officers as Van Dyke opened fire.

Ahead of the sentencing, Van Dyke’s defense team has given the court dozens of letters from family, friends and the public asking Gaughan to show mercy.

Van Dyke’s wife wrote that he had suffered enough.

“There was no malice, no ill intent or hatred on that fateful night when my husband was faced with a split-second decision,” Tiffany Van Dyke wrote. “He believed he was making the right choice that night.”

Van Dyke’s two daughters wrote that they’ve endured heartache and bullying at school since the incident.

More: Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke guilty of second-degree murder in 2014 shooting death of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald

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Three of Van Dyke’s colleagues were found not guilty Thursday of conspiring to cover up details of the shooting.

Officer Thomas Gaffney, former Officer Joseph Walsh and former Detective David March had been charged with conspiracy, obstruction of justice and official misconduct.

Prosecutors said the three filed false reports to protect Van Dyke.

The shooting of McDonald, a troubled teen who had been in and out of the juvenile justice system, further widened the chasm between police and Chicago’s African-American population, who make up nearly a third of the city’s population.

It was one of several officer-involved shootings around the nation that spurred a broader conversation about policing in black communities.

Police and city leaders initially resisted releasing the chilling dashcam video. It was made public only after a city activist and a journalist sued.

The court-ordered release, 400 days after the shooting, sparked citywide protests. Prosecutors announced charges. The city had agreed to pay a $5 million settlement to McDonald’s family before the video’s release.

At trial, Van Dyke’s defense attorney highlighted McDonald’s reportedly erratic and menacing behavior in the minutes leading up to the shooting. Authorities said the teen had PCP in his system.

Attorney Daniel Herbert told the jury that Van Dyke was terrified and opened fire to preserve his and his colleagues’ lives.

McDonald ignored repeated calls from police to drop the knife. Officers followed the teen for several blocks as he wound his way through city streets. At one point, he scratched the windshield and popped the tire of a police squad car. 

McDonald attacked him. But he also said he was able to fend him off by throwing his mobile phone and pebbles at him.

“Mr. McDonald is not blameless in the incident,” Herbert said in pre-sentencing filings.

Van Dyke was initially charged with first-degree murder, but the jurors ultimately convicted him of the lesser charge of second-degree murder.

The video kindled weeks of peaceful protests in downtown Chicago and led to the firing of Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy and, eventually, the election loss of Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel saw his standing in the black community plummet. 

Emanuel resisted calls to step down and vowed to repair frayed relations between the police department and the African-American community. But he announced in September that he would not seek a third term in the mayoral election next month.

Since the shooting, the department has launched new de-escalation training, made it policy to release nearly all video of police-involved shooting incidents within 60 to 90 days, and required all officers to wear body cameras.

The Illinois Attorney General’s Office sued the city in federal court in 2017 to implement a court-monitored consent decree aimed at ensuring reforms in the police department are carried out.

State and city officials settled on parameters of the decree last year. It includes requirements that the police department publish use-of-force data monthly, tighten policy on the use of Tasers and document each time officers draw their weapons.

Follow USA TODAY national correspondent Aamer Madhani on Twitter: @AamerISmad

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