(Tribune) Chicago police officers trailed 17-year-old Laquan McDonald for more than half a mile, keeping their distance and buying time.
Even after McDonald punctured the tire of a squad car with a small folding knife, no one threatened to shoot him. Walking slowly down Pulaski Road, McDonald was pinned in by a construction fence to his right and surrounded by a half-dozen squad cars and 10 armed police officers. There was nowhere for him to go.
“We were trying to buy time to have a Taser,” Officer Joseph McElligott testified Monday in a hushed Cook County courtroom. “(McDonald) didn’t make any direct movement at me, and I felt like my partner was protected for the most part inside the vehicle. … We were just trying to be patient.”
McElligott was one of two patrol officers to offer crucial testimony during the first day of fellow Officer Jason Van Dyke’s trial. He is charged with first-degree murder in the October 2014 shooting of McDonald — the first time in decades that a Chicago police officer has stood trial for murder in an on-duty fatality. Police dashboard camera video of Van Dyke shooting McDonald 16 times as the teen appeared to walk away from police roiled the city on its court-ordered release more than a year after the incident.
The defense told jurors McDonald was responsible for his own death, having engaged in a “wild rampage” in the 24 hours leading up to the shooting. It also promised the evidence would show Van Dyke was in fear for his safety and others when he pulled the trigger.
Neither officer, however, seemed to back that account when they took the witness stand.
In addition to McElligott’s testimony, Officer Dora Fontaine told the jury she arrived at the scene seconds before Van Dyke opened fire. She testified McDonald made no attempt to stab anyone nor did he make any aggressive movements. She heard shots, saw McDonald spin and fall to the ground. Van Dyke was still firing at McDonald as he lay in the street, she said.
Fontaine never drew her weapon.
The case has long been racially fraught because Van Dyke is white and McDonald was black. On Monday, special prosecutor Joseph McMahon wasted no time alleging that race was a motivating factor in the shooting, saying just minutes into his opening statement that the fact that McDonald was African-American was one of the only things Van Dyke knew about the teen when he decided to shoot.
“What he did know, what he did see, was a black boy walking down the street … having the audacity to ignore the police,” McMahon said.
When Van Dyke arrived on the scene that night, he began shooting within six seconds, firing all 16 bullets and even attempting to reload while McDonald lay motionless in the street, McMahon said.
McMahon then counted each shot for the jury, pounding the lectern for emphasis each time.
“The defendant tries to shoot Laquan McDonald, not once, but twice, three, four, five, six, seven, eight — and we’re only halfway done — nine, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16 times,” he said.
In his opening remarks, Van Dyke’s lead attorney, Daniel Herbert, bristled at the suggestion that race was a factor, telling the jury the fact that McDonald was black had “absolutely nothing” to do with Van Dyke’s decision to open fire.
Van Dyke’s attorneys have argued the shooting was a clear-cut case of self-defense, painting McDonald as an out-of-control, violent teen who was high on the dangerous hallucinogenic PCP and posed a threat to officers and civilians. Herbert said the evidence will show McDonald had been on a “wild rampage” across Chicago in the hours before the shooting — although he offered few details.
As Van Dyke and his partner were heading to the scene, the“threat level is going up,” particularly after McDonald took off running toward a more populated area on Pulaski, Herbert said. He even suggested that police had a duty to shoot McDonald to prevent him from running into a busy Dunkin’ Donuts across the street.
But the testimony of McElligott and Fontaine appeared to poke holes in the claim that Van Dyke was in fear for his life or anyone else’s that night.
Fontaine, who received immunity from state and federal prosecutors in exchange for her testimony, told the jury she saw McDonald “swaying” the knife back and forth as he walked down the street. Dashcam video played during her testimony showed Fontaine and her partner pulling up to the scene just before McDonald was first shot.
“I hear, ‘Drop the knife! Drop the knife!’ ” testified Fontaine, adding that McDonald never charged toward the officers or attacked anyone.
The jury did not hear that the city inspector general recommended Fontaine be fired for earlier saying she heard Van Dyke and his partner that night, Officer Joseph Walsh, repeatedly order McDonald to drop the knife, even though the dashcam video showed she didn’t exit her car until after Van Dyke began firing. Superintendent Eddie Johnson ultimately did not seek her firing, saying the evidence against her was insufficient. It was uncertain what, if any, discipline was sought.
McElligott, testifying in uniform and appearing nervous on the stand, said he and his partner responded to the original 911 call from a truck driver who’d spotted McDonald attempting to break into vehicles in an industrial lot at 41st Street and Kildare Avenue.
McElligott said they found McDonald walking on 40th Street. After McDonald displayed a knife, he got out of his squad car and drew his gun, ordering the teen to drop the weapon. McDonald just kept walking, and McElligott followed him on foot at a distance of about 10 to 15 feet while his partner drove their squad car beside the officer.
As dispatchers sent out a request for a Taser over the radio, McDonald continued walking past the Greater Chicago Food Depository, where surveillance cameras captured McElligott shining a flashlight on McDonald as they walked. The teen occasionally turned around to display the knife at his side, but McElligott said he never felt he or his partner was threatened.
When his partner twice tried to cut off McDonald with the squad car to block him from going farther, the teen stabbed the tire and scraped the windshield with the knife, McElligott said. McDonald then began to run, and other responding squad cars cut off McElligott from McDonald.
Shortly afterward, McElligott heard at least 10 gunshots in succession. As he got closer, he saw McDonald lying in the street and Van Dyke nearby with his gun still in his hand.
“He was looking like in shock,” McElligott said.
The long-awaited trial kicked off in Cook County Judge Vincent Gaughan’s packed courtroom after months of wrangling and three days of jury selection. Among the spectators were Van Dyke’s wife, Tiffany, and his father, Owen, 77. Seated next to Van Dyke’s family was the Rev. George Clements, an African-American Catholic priest who is well-known for his involvement in the civil rights movement.
Several members of McDonald’s extended family were present, but his mother, Tina Hunter, was not in the gallery for Monday’s testimony. She could be a witness in the case.
Van Dyke, dressed in a dark suit and tie, kept his hands folded in front of him on the defense table through much of Monday’s testimony, looking on without visible emotion.
Outside the Leighton Criminal Court Building, a few protesters chanted slogans and carried signs demanding Van Dyke be found guilty in the video-recorded shooting that led to months of protests, political upheaval and wholesale changes at the Police Department. None of the demonstrators were present when jurors arrived at the courthouse.
Despite the fireworks in court in the months leading up to the trial, Monday’s opening day was largely understated. In his brief, workmanlike opening statement to the jury, McMahon said police officers have the authority to fire their weapons in very specific situations, but this was not one of them. Holding up the 3-inch blade that McDonald carried that night, McMahon suggested the teen could have — and should have — been subdued with a Taser.
“Not a single shot was necessary or justified,” he said. “There is a Chicago police Taser unit on its way and not a single pedestrian in sight.”
By the time McDonald ran onto Pulaski Road, he was corralled on all sides by five police squad cars and 10 armed police officers on the scene, McMahon said. A 7-foot construction fence cut off any escape to the teen’s right.
When Van Dyke arrived on the scene, he began shooting within six seconds, McMahon said. McDonald was knocked to the street within 1.6 seconds of the shooting, but Van Dyke fired for an additional 12.5 seconds until his gun was emptied.
McMahon also told the jury that Van Dyke began to reload his weapon after shooting McDonald — evidence that only a short time earlier the defense had unsuccessfully tried to block the jury from hearing. Van Dyke did not stop reloading until his partner told him to stop.
In his opening statement, Herbert cautioned jurors that the now-infamous dashcam video does not tell the full story, in part because it didn’t capture how the incident unfolded from Van Dyke’s perspective.
“What happened to Laquan McDonald was a tragedy,” he said. “It’s a tragedy. It’s not a murder.”
Herbert told jurors that the defense has re-created a video to show Van Dyke’s perspective. At one point, he picked up the brown-handled knife McDonald had on him and started swinging it in a stabbing motion, imitating what Herbert said was McDonald’s attempt to kill the man who’d initially called 911 on him.
With a close-up of a Chicago police squad car on the screen, zoomed in on the words “we serve and protect,” Herbert said that Illinois law governing police use-of-force justified Van Dyke’s actions that night.
“Police officers have a duty to protect the public, to protect people from potential harm, and that’s what we have here, ladies and gentlemen,” he said.
He also painted Van Dyke as an upstanding citizen who made breakfast for his family, kissed his wife goodbye and completed a “honey-do” list before reporting for duty on the night of the shooting.
“What he didn’t know at that time was that his life was going to change forever,” Herbert said.
Article Org: chicagotribune.com