Judges Prove Laquan McDonald’s Life Didn’t Matter Very Much to the System

Last October, a jury convicted Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke of second degree murder and aggravated assault for killing 17-year-old Laquan McDonald. Prosecutors asked for between 18 and 19 years in prison.  On Friday, however, the judge in the case, Vincent Gaughan, sentenced Van Dyke to less than seven years in prison.

In response to these events, activist William Calloway, who fought for the release of the video of the killing and related police reports, said what many Black Americans felt: “We are devastated, we’re heartbroken, but we’re not deterred... 81 months in the Illinois department of corrections, that’s a slap in the face to us and a slap on the wrist to him.”

The same week, police officers Joseph Walsh and Thomas Gaffney and Detective David March — who were charged with obstruction of justice, official misconduct, and conspiracy for lying in statements and police reports to protect Van Dyke — were found not guilty of all charges by Cook County Associate Judge Domenica Stephenson in a trial without a jury. The judicial decisions surrounding the McDonald case send a clear message: Black lives matter, they just matter less than those of white law enforcement.

While Van Dyke was charged with murder, Walsh, Gaffney, and March were accused of lying by saying McDonald was approaching Van Dyke instead of moving away from him when Van Dyke fired. The issue in both cases came down to this: Is the video of the murder an accurate depiction of what happened, or is it possibly inaccurate because it was shot from a different perspective than the one the four officers had? How did they all explain the video that shows McDonald walking away from Van Dyke and not toward him? Van Dyke’s only explanation, and the only one offered by the other three officers, was that the video did not show their perspective. 

But perspective can’t trump facts. 

Snoop Dogg wrote, “Resident evil, it is all on camera and they still don’t believe you…” Watch the video and believe your eyes. Perspective cannot make a Black man walking away from officers look like he is running toward them. If you watch the video, your eyes will tell you Laquan McDonald was moving away from officers, and specifically away from Van Dyke. And within six seconds of leaving his car Van Dyke started firing. And 14 seconds later he had fired 16 times, and McDonald was dead.   

Perspective is definitely a factor, not in terms of the location from which a person saw something but in terms of attitudes and biases a person brought to the situation. Our courts have had a perspective on the value of Black lives that has not been admirable. American courts have stripped Black lives of value going back to Dred Scott and Plessy v. Ferguson. The lynchings that occurred from after the Civil War to the late 60s were largely not investigated, and the very few prosecutions resulted in even fewer convictions. We currently have a death penalty system where the race of the victim is one of the most significant factors in whether or not a death sentence is imposed. Judicial acquiescence to the devaluing of Black lives is nothing new. 

Prosecutors called Van Dyke’s sentence a “significant” one and commented on the not guilty verdicts for the other officers, said(saying), “We of course, disagree with the ruling but we respect the ruling,” adding, “we do hope that this has been a crack in the wall of the code of silence” and that officers would “think twice” before engaging in a future cover-up.

The special prosecutor did the right thing and vigorously pursued these cases, but suggesting that the results will cause officers to “think twice” before engaging in similar behavior goes too far.

First, they relate to a police department with a particularly ugly culture and history. In the 70s, under the leadership of Detective Jon Burge, CPD tortured almost 120 people into giving false confessions. The “system” tolerated that behavior until 1993 when he was fired for mistreatment of a suspect. He was not convicted of any crime until 2010.

This is also the police department that tortured Joseph Lopez for four days in the summer of 2000 until he confessed to a murder he did not commit. This is the department that sought to cover up the 2007 beating of Karolina Obrycka. In 2014, the organization We Charge Genocide submitted a report to the United Nations Committee Against Torture demonstrating that Black residents in Chicago are 10 times more likely than whites to be shot by a Chicago police officer and that in 2014 only 2 percent of 1,509 excessive force complaints resulted in a penalty of any kind. 

This is the culture of the Chicago Police Department, and one the judiciary allows to persist. Van Dyke's modest sentence for second-degree murder and the outright acquittals for Gaffney, Walsh, and March sends a message to police — hang together and officers can walk away from almost anything without too much trouble, even if it's on video.

Excessive sentences are wrong for everyone regardless of race.  But no one should try to paint Van Dyke’s sentence as the start of a new era in Chicago where people who commit murder will be treated more leniently.  This is an example of how white lives are valued over Black lives.  That is an injustice as large as any other one in the entire criminal legal system.

The case of Laquan McDonald reminds those of us who need reminding why there is a Black Lives Matter movement — because this nation does not value Black and white lives in the same way. We never have, and the question that sits with us now is: Will we ever?

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In the words of Jackie Gleason--Hardy Har Hardy har har


I am white and I live in Chicago and I felt the rage of this unjust decision. Why should the pleading by the family of Van Dyck for a shortened sentence be any more heart-breaking than for the families of convicted black people? What is there to gain by continuing the egregious injustice in this country? The Pledge of Allegiance to OUR country means ... with liberty and justice for ALL. Democracy is a fragile idea, if enough citizens no longer believe in it and live by it, it will be replaced. The Golden Rule does not mean “He who has the gold, makes the rules!”. It means “Do unto others as you would have them do into you!” Simple, direct, constant guide for all.

Philip M. Kober...

As someone who has a background in law and medicine, and who was born and raised in the Chicago area, I have followed this case. I watched the video. One thing is clear, while video can hide some things it cannot make someone appear to be moving away when they are actually moving toward someone else. As a well-trained scientist, I categorically state that is a physical impossibility.

This case illustrates an issue that I am keenly interested. In this country, there are essentially no standards for police use of a firearm. There ought to be detailed written standards with appropriate training to those standards, and those standards should be enforced. But they simply are not. Shooting by police officers should be a LAST resort, but all too often, particularly with persons of color and other minorities, it is the first resort. Use of the firearm by an officer should be based on the same thing as it is for civilians: That the person the police shoot at presents a threat to the officer's life or to the life of a member of the community or a threat of serious maiming. The only difference between a sworn police officer and a member of the community acting in self-defense is that the sworn officer is privileged to shoot someone who is fleeing when that fleeing suspect presents a clear danger to the community --- i.e. they have been brandishing and using a deadly weapon and start to flee. In the Laquan McDonald case there never was any such threat. This same situation happens all too often. Violence committed by police officers is all too common. One does not have to look very hard to find examples of officers beating up on suspects they are arresting for no apparent reason. It often appears like some gang fight with one of the gangs, officers in uniform, beating a rival gang member into submission. With that kind of attitude it is no wonder that the violence often escalates in shootings by police. Even tasers, which are not the benign devices they are represented to be --- they can cause a cardiac arrest, are used far to often when unnecessary. Unfortunately, as I already stated, people of color are most often the victims of police violence.

All of this points to a crying need for written standards, better training, and also better selection of people to become officers. These cases in the City of Chicago have made the situation worse. My experience in the Chicago area, where I lived over half of my life (I am now 67), is that there is definitely a systemic problem in the Chicago Police Department. I agree rather than furthering improvements in the CPD, these cases and the light sentences merely foster the status quo. The current administration in Washington has also contributed to worsening the problems of police excessive use of force all across the country. Police should be defusing violence, including in making arrests, not engaging in violence.

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