Chicago, IL - Former Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke has been sentenced to nearly seven years in prison for the 2014 shooting death of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald.
Cook County Judge Vincent Gaughan handed down the sentence before a packed courtroom on Friday afternoon.
Gaughan sentenced the former officer to the Department of Corrections for a period of 81 months, followed by two years of mandatory supervised release.
He may be considered for parole in just over three years.
Officer Van Dyke fatally shot McDonald while the knife-wielding teen, high on PCP, walked down the street and ignored officers’ commands.
Speaking on his own behalf, Van Dyke said that the fatal encounter was the "worst day of my life."
It was the only time he ever fired his weapon in the line of duty, and he feared for his life, he said, holding back tears.
Van Dyke expressed remorse for the McDonald family's loss.
"No one wants to take someone's life, even in defense of their own," he said.
Van Dyke faced a wide variety of possible sentences for his convictions, varying from probation to as many as 96 years in prison, the Chicago Tribune reported.
His defense team asked Gaughan to sentence him to probation, and submitted dozens of letters written by the former officer’s friends and family to support the request.
In one of the letters, Van Dyke’s 12-year-old daughter told the judge that she has struggled to stay focused in school and that she often has nightmares since her father’s arrest, the Chicago Tribune reported.
His 17-year-old daughter, Kaylee, wrote that she has experienced depression since her father’s conviction, and that she cries every night while wondering if he has enough food and blankets in his jail cell, the Chicago Tribune reported.
"I can't begin to tell you what an amazing, remarkable, outstanding man my father is,” Kaylee said on the witness stand. “I know who he really is…Now that he is gone, I feel as I am left with nothing."
"Many get police brutality confused with assertiveness or having to deal with people who are out of control," the high school junior continued. “How does society change to realize officers are normal people who have families and put their life on the line to protect us?"
Kaylee told the judge that her father didn’t cause the pain her family is experiencing. She said that fault lies with politicians and the media.
“My dad is the strongest, most selfless person with the biggest heart,” she said. “Please…bring my dad home.”
“I love you, Dad,” Kaylee said, looking at her father sitting at the defense table.
Tiffany, who has been married to Van Dyke for nearly 20 years, said that there is no “malice” or “racism” in her husband, and that the Chicago Police Department lost a fantastic officer.
“My husband is my everything,” she said through tears. “He’s my heart.”
Tiffany said that her husband is her first thought every day, and that their life without him has become “torture.”
She begged the court to have mercy in rendering her husband’s sentence.
Tiffany said that she and her father-in-law have had to wear ballistic vests when they travel to and from the courthouse due to threats that have been made, and that her greatest fear is that her husband will be murdered in prison.
The couple’s children have been viciously bullied and targeted as a result of the case, Tiffany and other family members testified.
Several retired law enforcement officers with decades of experience also testified on Van Dyke’s behalf.
Former Fraternal Order of Police President Dean Angelo said that the McDonald would still be alive if he would have complied with the officers’ commands to crop his weapon.
“He’s not the monster people have made him out to be in the media and in political circles,” he explained. “He is a big gentle kid. He’s a hard worker. He’s dedicated. He’s a good dad. He’s religious. He’s quite loyal.”
Special prosecutor Joseph McMahon said that Van Dyke acted egregiously during the fatal shooting, and that he must be sentenced to prison.
He recommended that the court impose a sentence of 18 to 20 years.
"Probation is absolutely not appropriate," McMahon added.
Prosecutors presented a litany of “traumatized” suspects that he had contact with Officer Van Dyke throughout his career during the aggravating phase of the hearing.
Van Dyke has been incarcerated at the Rock Island County Jail in solitary confinement since his conviction for his own protection, according to the Chicago Tribune.
The former police officer was convicted of 16 counts of aggravated battery and second-degree murder on Oct. 5, 2018.
The incident occurred at about 9:45 p.m. on Oct. 20, 2014, when Chicago police responded to a report of a teenager breaking into vehicles in the 4000-block of South Karlov Avenue, Fraternal Order of Police Spokesman Pat Camden told WLS at the time.
The teen, later identified as McDonald, slashed the front passenger tire of a patrol SUV, damaged the vehicle’s windshield, and took off on foot, police said.
Officers intercepted the armed suspect in the 4100-block of South Pulaski Road and ordered him to drop the knife, but he refused.
According to the Chicago Tribune, police said McDonald was under the influence of PCP at the time of the incident.
During the trial, Officer Van Dyke’s attorney, Dan Herbert, said that the incident was "a tragedy that could have been prevented with one simple step," the Chicago Tribune reported.
Herbert then dropped the knife McDonald had been carrying that night onto the courtroom floor.
"At any point throughout that 20-something minute rampage, had Laquan McDonald dropped the knife, he'd be here today," Herbert declared.
During the trial, Chicago Police Officer Joseph McElligott testified that he had followed McDonald on foot for several blocks prior to the fatal shooting, and said he did not feel that his life was ever in danger, the Chicago Tribune reported.
“We were trying to buy time to have a Taser,” Officer McElligott said. “We were just trying to be patient.”
Dashcam footage showed McDonald as he jogged down the middle of the roadway towards a police cruiser.
He then walked around the first patrol car and veered into the traffic lane, as officers moved towards his left side, the video showed.
During the trial, Officer Van Dyke’s partner, Officer Walsh, reenacted how McDonald swung the three-inch blade behind his back and up to shoulder-height just before he was shot, the Chicago Tribune reported.
The dashcam video also did not show how events unfolded from Officer Van Dyke’s perspective, and should not be the only piece of evidence utilized to understand what occurred, his attorney noted.
But Officer Walsh was in close proximity to Officer Van Dyke during the incident, and testified that McDonald posed a risk to their safety and that they had a reason to be afraid, the Chicago Tribune reported.
"At 9:57:36, McDonald has crossed over the white lane divider away from the officers, and Officer Van Dyke has taken at least one step towards McDonald with his weapon drawn," Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez said in November of 2015, after Officer Van Dyke was charged with first-degree murder, according to WLS.
"[Officer Van Dyke] then opened fire on Laquan, whose arm jerks, his body spins around and he falls to the ground,” Alvarez said. “While Laquan is falling to the ground the defendant takes at least one more step towards him.”
At that point, the patrol car where the dashcam was mounted moved to the right, cutting Officer Van Dyke out of the frame.
“Two seconds later, Laquan McDonald is lying on the street on his right side, and the video captures what appears to be two puffs of smoke coming from the ground near his body,” Alvarez said, according to WLS. “These puffs of smoke were later identified as clouds of debris caused by the fired bullets.”
“At 9:57:51, McDonald is still lying on the street and the last visible shot is fired,” she said.
According to prosecutors, Officer Van Dyke was beginning to load another magazine into his duty weapon - as he was trained to do - when his partner told him to cease fire.
The second officer then walked toward McDonald, and kicked his knife out of reach.
An autopsy revealed that McDonald was shot in the back of his arms, his right leg, and multiple times in the chest, WLS reported.
He was shot 16 times, according to the Chicago Tribune.
“Of the eight officers on the scene, it was only the defendant who fired his weapon,” Alvarez said. “[Officer Van Dyke acted] without legal justification and with the intent to kill or do great bodily harm” when he fired the fatal rounds.
Herbert argued that his client was forced to make a “split-second” decision in a dangerous, fluid situation.
"The judgement made by individuals that view this tape from the comfort of their living room on their sofa, it's not the same standard as the perspective from my client,” Herbert told WLS. “People viewing this video tape will have the brilliance and benefits of hindsight, 20/20 vision."
Prosecutors argued that Officer Van Dyke should have used less-lethal means to stop the armed teen, and said he could have waited for another officer to arrive with a Taser or used his vehicle to gently tap him, the Chicago Tribune reported.
The former officer was not the only Chicago police officer charged in connection with McDonald’s death.
On Thursday, Chicago Police Officers Joseph Walsh and Thomas Gaffney and former Detective David March were all acquitted on charges of obstruction of justice, official misconduct, and conspiracy.
The officers were charged after they provided “virtually identical false information” regarding the incident, according to court documents.
Associate Judge Domenica Stephenson said that different video angles showed different perspectives on what occurred on the night McDonald was shot.
Stephenson said prosecutors’ evidence was weak, speculative, and totally lacking any proof of crime, according to the Chicago Tribune.
“The state did not prove beyond a reasonable doubt that there was an agreement between any of these defendants or others, or any act in furtherance of their agreement,” she said. “This court finds that the state has failed to meet its burden on all charges.”
The judge called key witnesses unreliable and said they were inconsistent in their testimony.
She said the infamous dashcam video upon which prosecutors hinged their case was a completely different perspective than what officers at the scene had seen, the Chicago Tribune reported.
In April of 2015, the Chicago City Council awarded a $5 million settlement to McDonald’s family, the Associated Press reported.
McDonald was on probation and was a ward of the state at the time of his death, according to WLS.