Van Dyke suggested shooting McDonald before arriving on scene

The Rev. Jesse Jackson, center, described Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke’s words as he approached the scene as “premeditation” in a press conference after Tuesday’s testimony. Marvin Hunter, right, disputed Van Dyke's testimony. (Becky Z. Dernbach/Medill)

By Becky Dernbach
Medill Reports

A defense witness revealed this week that Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke was talking about shooting 17-year-old Laquan McDonald before he ever saw him.

“Why don’t they shoot him if he’s attacking them?” Van Dyke asked when he first heard the radio reports that McDonald had popped a squad car’s tire with a knife. Still a block and a half from the scene, he said to his partner, “Oh my God, we’re going to have to shoot the guy.”

Psychologist Laurence Miller, an expert witness in forensic and police psychology, confirmed these comments during cross examination. He testified that Van Dyke reported these reactions to him in an interview about the night of the fatal shooting, Oct. 20, 2014. Van Dyke confirmed the comments as well during cross-examination when he took the stand Tuesday in his own defense.

The prosecution in Van Dyke’s murder trial repeatedly stressed these comments in closing arguments Thursday before sending the officer’s case to the jury. The jury of 12, including just one black member, is now deliberating the fate of Van Dyke, the white police officer who shot black teenager Laquan McDonald 16 times. Van Dyke faces charges of first-degree murder, aggravated battery, and official misconduct. The jury also has the option to consider charges of second-degree murder, an option offered during jury instructions by Judge Vincent Gaughan in Cook County criminal court.

Defense attorneys stressed throughout the case that Van Dyke acted in self-defense out of fear for his life and the lives of others.

Miller spent most of his testimony detailing the brain’s response and memory formation in an emergency situation. Asked if Van Dyke’s reaction matched that of a reasonable officer, Miller chose his words carefully. “Faced with the perceptual reality of what Jason Van Dyke was experiencing, the answer would be yes,” he said. 

Miller’s testimony came just before Van Dyke took the stand, a defense decision that had been kept tightly under wraps until the last moment.

On the stand, Van Dyke repeatedly described McDonald as a “male black with black hoodie and blue jeans.”

“His face had no expression,” Van Dyke said. “His eyes were just bugging out of his head. He had just these huge white eyes, just staring right through me.”

Van Dyke’s testimony at times differed starkly from the video evidence showing the shooting. He described a series of motions he alleged McDonald made with the knife, but these motions are not evident in either the dashcam video or the defense’s animation  produced to show Van Dyke’s perspective.

As Van Dyke described the fatal encounter, he choked up, wiping tears from his eyes. He yelled at McDonald to drop the knife, he said, but McDonald “never stopped” advancing toward him. “I shot him,” he said, though he didn’t know how many times or whether McDonald had been hit. Even when McDonald had fallen to the ground from the gunshots, Van Dyke considered him a threat, he said.

“I could see him starting to push up off the ground, I could still see him holding that knife with his right hand, not letting go of it,” Van Dyke said. “His face is still bugged out, no expression on it.”

Neither the dashcam video nor the defense team’s animation video shows McDonald pushing off the ground.

On cross-examination, the prosecution pressed Van Dyke on inconsistencies in his story. At times, the tone of his answers turned curt.

“When did you make a decision to stop shooting?” assistant special prosecutor Jody Gleason asked.

“When he was on the ground,” Van Dyke said.

“But you kept shooting when he was on the ground?” Gleason challenged.

“After I reassessed the situation I did fire after that, yes I did,” Van Dyke said.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson, in a press conference after Tuesday’s testimony, pointed to Van Dyke’s initial comments about shooting Laquan McDonald as “premeditation.”

“He was not remorseful,” Jackson said. “He was not contrite.”

The Rev. Jesse Jackson, center, described Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke’s words as he approached the scene as “premeditation” in a press conference after Tuesday’s testimony. Laquan McDonald’s great-uncle Rev. Marvin Hunter (right), disputed Van Dyke’s testimony. (Becky Z. Dernbach/Medill)