(Tribune) The infamous police dashboard camera video shows Laquan McDonald spin wildly at the first shots from Chicago police Officer Jason Van Dyke before collapsing to Pulaski Road a second and a half later.
Prosecutors have told jurors that Van Dyke continued firing for 12 seconds after the teen fell, emptying his gun while McDonald lay prone on the street — a barrage of gunfire so intense that it could not be determined which was the fatal shot.
But on Monday a forensic pathologist hired by Van Dyke’s legal team contradicted those assertions, testifying that as many as 15 of the 16 bullets that struck McDonald did so while he was still standing and that a single shot to the chest likely caused McDonald’s death “within minutes.”
As the first defense witness, Dr. Shaku Teas represented a chance for Van Dyke’s team to control the narrative surrounding an October 2014 shooting that has roiled the city since the release of the graphic video a year later.
But Teas’ testimony offered no insight into the central question of whether Van Dyke was justified in shooting the teen as he walked away from police holding a knife in his hand while ignoring commands to stop.
Instead, her three hours on the witness stand often bogged down on issues such as whether McDonald had a pulse at the scene, why more photos weren’t taken at the original autopsy and even pseudo-philosophical questions about the definition of death.
Van Dyke’s attorneys ultimately are expected to argue that because the first shots fired by the officer caused irreversibly fatal wounds, the other dozen or so shots have no significance to the case.
Legal experts at the Leighton Criminal Court Building have questioned the strategy, calling it a nuanced legal argument that could backfire if the jury finds it distasteful. The argument would also contradict indicted former Officer Joseph Walsh, Van Dyke’s partner that night who testified last week that Van Dyke needed to keep shooting McDonald because he still held the knife while lying on the pavement.
On Monday afternoon, Van Dyke’s attorneys launched another risky strategy — attempting to prove that McDonald was a violent, out-of-control youth. Three witnesses who had encountered him long before his death testified about separate incidents in which he was belligerent, aggressive or verbally abusive, although all three acknowledged that Van Dyke had no knowledge of the incidents at the time he shot McDonald.
Van Dyke, 40, is charged with two counts of first-degree murder, 16 counts of aggravated battery, and one count of official misconduct in McDonald’s death, the first time in decades a Chicago police officer has faced murder charges for an on-duty fatality.
Van Dyke’s attorneys have called the shooting a clear-cut case of self-defense.
Using a PowerPoint presentation, Teas took jurors through a shot-by-shot analysis of the autopsy on McDonald’s body conducted by a Cook County pathologist a day after his death.
Teas, who once worked for the medical examiner’s office, was sharply critical of her ex-colleagues’ methods and findings, including what she said was a failure to fully document the wounds and bullet trajectories as well as mislabel entry wounds as exit wounds and vice versa.
Unlike last week, McDonald’s mother, Tina Hunter, watched in the courtroom Monday as the photos of her son’s bullet wounds were displayed. She bowed her head as the first photo of a bright red graze wound on McDonald’s scalp was shown on a screen. McDonald, her firstborn and only son, would have turned 21 Tuesday.
Across the aisle, Jason Van Dyke’s wife, Tiffany, sat next to a priest and a nun from the couple’s Southwest Side parish.
Teas testified that a bullet that entered McDonald’s chest and severed his pulmonary artery was most likely the one that killed him. His death, she said, would have occurred within one to five minutes.
The forensic pathologist said a second wound to the teen’s neck appeared to have been sustained in the initial volley of shots while McDonald was turned and facing the officer.
Last week, Chief Medical Examiner Ponni Arunkumar testified that McDonald was alive for “each and every gunshot wound.”
On direct examination Monday, however, Teas said it depended on the definition of “alive.”
“If I’m going to say death is a process, I say yes, he was in the process of dying,” she said.
Teas also held that McDonald sustained relatively little blood loss from many of the gunshot injuries, likely since the chest wound caused him to lose so much blood.
She also discounted testimony that McDonald had a weak pulse when treated by paramedics at the scene, saying that the heart could still have been beating even though he was near death.
“Are you saying that he died before those other wounds even had a chance to bleed?” asked Tammy Wendt, one of Van Dyke’s attorneys.
“Probably,” Teas said. “I should say he didn’t have effective circulation.”
Teas also said that the dashcam video of the shooting aided her in determining that most of the gunshots sustained by McDonald came while he was still standing or in the process of spinning and falling to the street.
While being questioned by the defense, Teas repeatedly rose in the witness stand to demonstrate with a short stick how particular bullets would have struck the teen depending on the position of his body as he twisted.
Teas testified that only one of the wounds — a shot to the right hand — definitively appeared to hit McDonald after he had fallen to the street. She said she was unable to determine the teen’s body position for a graze wound to the top of his head. But the other wounds, she said, were sustained while he was standing, spinning or falling.
She also told the jury that it was likely that the concentration of PCP in McDonald’s blood was even higher than tests indicated, since he’d received a transfusion at the hospital and the sample that was tested was likely “diluted.”
According to prosecution evidence last week, the shooting video shows McDonald falling to the pavement less than two seconds after Van Dyke opened fire. It then took Van Dyke another 12 seconds to finish shooting, all while McDonald laid on the pavement.
Walsh, Van Dyke’s partner that night who faces a separate trial on charges he exaggerated McDonald’s threat in police reports, testified under immunity last week that Van Dyke continued to fire when McDonald was lying prone because the teen still posed a threat.
A use-of-force expert hired by the prosecution, however, testified last week that the shooting video showed that McDonald was “clearly incapacitated” after he fell wounded to the street.
During a sometimes combative cross-examination, prosecutor Jody Gleason noted that Teas’ written report on the autopsy differed from her live testimony, particularly in the position of McDonald’s body when several of shots struck him.
The prosecutor and Teas also sparred on how significant it was that McDonald had a pulse when paramedics arrived, with Gleason taking Teas to task for suggesting the other wounds did not matter.
“It certainly mattered to Laquan McDonald,” Gleason said.
When Teas testified that death is a “process,” even saying that the heart can beat for a while after death, Gleason responded, “I understand death is a process. I mean, we’re all dying, right?”
“Not imminently,” said Teas, drawing a rare chuckle from the courtroom gallery that prompted a sheriff’s deputy to shout, “Quiet!”
The constant sparring between prosecutors and defense attorneys over the last week about the precise moment when McDonald died appeared to be wearing on a jury that saw the same autopsy photos and heard wound-by-wound testimony last week from the chief medical examiner. By the end of Teas’ testimony, none of the jurors appeared to be taking notes, and many looked listless as they swiveled in their chairs and glanced around the courtroom.
In afternoon testimony, Van Dyke’s attorneys called three witnesses to testify about incidents in McDonald’s past.
Miguel DeJesus, an intake officer at the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center, told the jury that McDonald had become upset in January 2014 about being locked up and wanted to make a phone call and be given a pair of tennis shoes. The teen admitted that he was on pills and “the leaf” — PCP — and his eyes looked glassy, DeJesus said.
“He got up. He swung at me. I was able to grab him and pick him up,” said DeJesus, noting he was able to “pin” the teen until help arrived.
In an August 2013 incident, McDonald lashed out at a sheriff’s deputy in the lockup at juvenile court and tried to throw a punch, another officer testified. And a former juvenile detention center officer said that in April 2014 he had to put McDonald in a chokehold during an attempt to remove him from a common area.
Under Illinois law, defendants claiming self-defense in some circumstances can introduce evidence of the victim’s violent character and history — even if the defendant could not have known about that history at the time of the incident.
In an effort to show that Van Dyke had no knowledge of the encounters between McDonald and Monday’s witnesses, prosecutors pressed all three about whether they had told Van Dyke about the incidents. All said no.
Much like the issue of which specific shot killed McDonald, the defense strategy of painting McDonald as a less-sympathetic victim is a fine line — one that could easily look like a smear and backfire in front of jurors, legal experts have told the Tribune.
Article Org: chicagotribune.com