Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke has been charged with first-degree murder in his shooting of Laquan McDonald, 17, on Oct. 20, 2014. The videotape below challenges a claim that Van Dyke was defending himself or others in shooting McDonald 16 times. While McDonald was armed with a knife, he was walking away from the officers. There are defenses that can be made but the videotape presents a considerable hurdle for defense counsel.
Two of the most notable aspects of the videotape is that only McDonald felt the need to fire among the various officers and he did so within seconds of getting out of his car upon his arrival at the scene. The teen was 12 to 15 feet away when he was shot.
While I believe that there was a strong basis for criminal charges, the use of first degree murder may prove more difficult for the prosecutors who could end up with a lesser offense. The most obvious defense is that Van Dyke is entitled to use lethal force for his own protection as well as the protection of the public. McDonald was armed with a knife and suspected of committing a robbery prior to the shooting. He was allegedly trying to break into vehicles at a trucking yard and he was accused by a witness of threatening him with the knife. Police reported that he had punctured a tire of a police car and struck the vehicle’s wind shield. He then took the police on a foot chase for nearly a half-mile as police tried to corral him and protect the public. McDonald also had PCP in his system and was acting erratically. Van Dyke could argue that when McDonald again turned to flee, he presented a danger to society as well as the officers.
Under Tennessee v. Garner, “deadly force…may not be used unless necessary to prevent the escape and the officer has probable cause to believe that the suspect poses a significant threat of death or serious bodily harm to the officer or others.” Thus, the Supreme Court rejected the prior fleeing felon rule when the felon did not pose an immediate threat to society. Under Graham v. Connor, this is determined according to an “objective reasonableness” standard but a calculus that considers the split second decision-making in such circumstances.
In this case McDonald appears to pull up his pants and then slows to a brisk walk. He then veers away from two officers who are emerging from a vehicle and drawing their guns. The shooting occurs almost immediately when the officer leaves the car. A 3-inch knife was recovered from the scene.
Van Dyke emptied all of his 16 round from his 9-mm. weapon into the teenager. The shooting lasted 14 to 15 seconds and McDonald was on the ground for 13 of those seconds.