CHICAGO – The last moments of Laquan McDonald’s life played over and over again for the jury. An officer pulls up, gets out of a squad car and opens fire as the black teenager walks away from police, a small knife in one hand. McDonald crumples to the ground. More bullets are fired into his body – a total of 16.
The video of the Oct. 20, 2014, shooting is so central to the murder trial of white Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke that jurors watched it at least five times during the first day of testimony Monday – the first time only 15 minutes into opening statements. Its release more than a year after the shooting sparked large protests, the ouster of the city’s police superintendent and demands for police reform.
Most jurors had said during jury selection that they already had seen the footage, which appears to contradict the initial claims of Van Dyke and other officers that McDonald had lunged at them with a knife. Now the jury watched it repeatedly, with prosecutors at one point stopping it to highlight certain points: the moment before Van Dyke opens fire; the first bullet striking McDonald; the 17-year-old lying on the ground.
In some of the most compelling testimony of the day, officer Dora Fontaine said puffs of smoke seen on video coming from the teen’s prone body were, in fact, smoke that she saw when bullets struck him.
While prosecutors stressed that no other officers who encountered McDonald opened fire, defense attorney Daniel Herbert argued that Van Dyke “is not a murderer. ... He is a scared police officer who was fearful for his life and the life of others and acted as he was trained to do.”
In his opening statement, special prosecutor Joseph McMahon recounted each of the 16 shots that Van Dyke fired, rapping his knuckles on a lectern each time he said a number: “He shot him ... not once, not twice, but three, four, five, six seven, eight – he’s only half way done – nine, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16 times in total.”
“Not a single shot was necessary or justified,” he said at another point in his opening statement.
But Herbert told the jury that the number of shots fired was irrelevant: “They didn’t charge him with shooting too many times. They charged him with first-degree murder.”
Herbert painted a picture of McDonald as a crazed teenager who had attacked a truck driver and a squad car and had tried to get into two restaurants. He said McDonald had flicked his folding knife open when Van Dyke pulled up.
McDonald was “planning to attack” again, Herbert said. “He’s not trying to escape.”
He and McMahon both noted McDonald had the hallucinogenic drug PCP in his system.
But McMahon said Van Dyke didn’t know that – or anything else about McDonald – when he opened fire only six seconds after getting out of his squad car.
“What he did see was a black boy walking down a street with a chain-link fence with the audacity to ignore the police,” McMahon said.
Fontaine, who appeared to be climbing out of her squad car when Van Dyke opened fire, testified that she never saw McDonald attack any officers, charge officers or even raise his arm.
Prosecutors granted her immunity for her testimony. She’s the only officer to challenge statements attributed to her in police reports about the shooting. Some other officers at the scene have been charged with lying on their reports in what prosecutors say was an effort to cover up what happened to protect Van Dyke.
Another officer who testified Monday, Joseph McElligott, said he had come within 15 feet of McDonald, the same distance Van Dyke was when he later shot the teen. He said McDonald had stabbed the tire of the squad car his partner was driving and struck the window with the knife. But he said he didn’t think his partner was in danger. He said they were waiting for an officer to arrive with a Taser to use on McDonald.
“We were just trying to be patient,” he said.
McElligott was down the street blocking traffic when Van Dyke arrived, and under cross-examination, McElligott said McDonald’s later actions had increased the threat level.
Van Dyke has pleaded not guilty to first-degree murder, aggravated battery and official misconduct.
Earlier Monday, Cook County Judge Vincent Gaughan decided against moving the trial from Chicago. Defense attorneys had argued that extensive publicity since the 2015 release of the video of the shooting makes it impossible for Van Dyke to get a fair trial in the city.