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Update On Trial In Killing Of Laquan McDonald

Sep 20, 2018
Originally published on September 20, 2018 5:29 am
Copyright 2018 WBEZ Chicago. To see more, visit WBEZ Chicago.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

A white police officer in Chicago is on trial for murder after he shot and killed Laquan McDonald, a 17-year-old black teenager, four years ago. McDonald had been walking down a street, away from police, holding a knife. Officer Jason Van Dyke shot him 16 times. Under pressure, the city released a dashcam video of the shooting a year after it happened. The shooting outraged the city. Chicago's top ranking officer was fired. The Justice Department was called in to investigate. And Mayor Rahm Emanuel suffered consequences, too. His response was widely criticized, and ultimately, he decided not to run for re-election. WBEZ's Patrick Smith has been covering the trial, and he joins me now. Why has it taken so long to come to trial?

PATRICK SMITH, BYLINE: Well, there are a couple of reasons. The first is something you alluded to in the intro, which was that it took 13 months for the dashcam video of the killing to come out. It also took 13 months for any charges to be filed against Officer Van Dyke - something that a lot of people say is no coincidence. Basically, they say they were never going to file these charges until the video release forced their hand.

So you've got that year delay. And then, honestly, after that, it's not that unusual for murder trials here in Cook County to move this slowly - to take three years to get to trial. Although, I will say Officer Van Dyke's defense attorney has been accused of delay tactics leading up to trial, which is something he's denied.

MARTIN: So is that why the dashcam video took so long to come out?

SMITH: The dashcam video took so long to come out because the city had a policy and say that they were sticking to that policy - that as long as there were criminal or other investigations into a shooting, they wouldn't release any material. They stuck with that until a lawsuit from an independent journalist forced them to release it to the public.

MARTIN: So this trial is happening this week. You've been watching this closely. What are the pivotal moments so far?

SMITH: Yeah. So today will be Day 4 of the prosecution's witnesses. There's some chatter that they're going to close today, although that's not something I've been able to confirm. So far, we've heard from a lot of officers who were on the scene the night that Officer Van Dyke shot and killed Laquan McDonald. On Tuesday, we heard from the officer who was Van Dyke's partner that night. And, you know, one thing that's unique in this particular shooting case is that the dashcam video - it not only shows the killing, it also largely disproves the official police narrative of what happened. You know, police reports - Van Dyke's partner says that Laquan McDonald swung the knife and attacked them, forcing Officer Van Dyke to open fire.

And what was interesting was he mostly stuck with that story when he was on the stand on Tuesday. And there was a moment when the prosecutor who was questioning him said, OK, I'm going to play the dashcam video for you. You stop me when you see him do those movements. The officer pushed back and said, you know, this isn't from my perspective. That's why you can't see what I'm describing. And that gets to the other thing that's really stood out which is that prosecutors are playing this rather gruesome video a lot. You know, jurors have seen it almost a dozen times. They saw it almost a dozen times in just the first two days.

MARTIN: And, I mean, I imagine this is something everyone is talking about - that the city has been kind of seized by this story.

SMITH: Yeah, the city is on edge. I've heard from a lot of people who are worried about what the reaction will be like if there's a not-guilty verdict, although that's worries we've heard from before. And the protests when the video released were forceful, but they were peaceful.

MARTIN: OK. WBEZ's Patrick Smith on this trial. We appreciate your reporting. Thanks so much.

SMITH: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.