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No federal charges for Chicago officer who fatally shot 17-year-old Laquan McDonald following release from prison

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Megan Crepeau

Chicago Tribune

Federal prosecutors will not bring a case against the former Chicago cop who killed 17-year-old Laquan McDonald, U.S. Attorney John Lausch’s office announced Monday.

Jason Van Dyke has already been tried and convicted in Cook County court for McDonald’s death, and federal law sets an extraordinarily high bar to prove criminal civil-rights violations in such a case — “more stringent than the state charges on which Mr. Van Dyke was convicted,” according to a statement from Lausch’s office.

“Federal prosecutors would need to prove to a jury beyond a reasonable doubt that Mr. Van Dyke willfully deprived Mr. McDonald of a constitutional right,” the statement read. “To do that, prosecutors would have to prove not only that Mr. Van Dyke acted with the deliberate and specific intent to do something the law forbids, but also that his actions were not the result of mistake, fear, negligence, or bad judgment.”

The decision not to bring federal charges was made in consultation with McDonald’s family, according to the statement.

It is rare for federal authorities to announce that they have declined to charge someone. But in the wake of Van Dyke’s release from prison after a relatively short sentence, high-profile figures such as the Rev. Jesse Jackson and the head of the NAACP had called on the Department of Justice to consider bringing a case that could put him back behind bars.

Van Dyke was convicted of second-degree murder and aggravated battery by a Cook County jury in 2018; he spent a little more than three years behind bars for McDonald’s death before his release in February. The 2014 shooting, captured on police video, sent shock waves from neighborhood streets to the mayor’s office at City Hall when footage was released more than a year later.

Van Dyke withdrew his appeal of the Cook County conviction in fall 2020, so authorities’ decision not to charge on the federal level likely marks the end of his legal journey.

The investigation into Van Dyke’s conduct was launched as a joint probe between state and federal authorities in April 2015. Then-Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez’s office charged Van Dyke with first-degree murder in state court in November of that year, while the federal investigation remained ongoing.

Federal prosecutors could not simply charge Van Dyke with murder again, the statement from federal prosecutors noted. Rather, they would have to prove that he willfully violated McDonald’s constitutional rights.

Lausch’s office stated Monday that if Van Dyke were convicted on federal charges, the federal judge would have to consider that Van Dyke had already served a prison sentence, and that he can no longer serve as a law enforcement officer.

“Given these factors, there is a significant prospect that a second prosecution would diminish the important results already achieved,” the statement read.

Van Dyke’s release from prison in February after less than four years in custody prompted many calls for federal prosecutors to charge him with civil-rights violations, or at least provide some closure regarding the federal probe that was launched after McDonald’s shooting.

On Twitter, the Chicago Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression said it would “continue to apply pressure on John Lausch, the DOJ, and all the powers that be, until Jason Van Dyke is indicted.”

“(Van Dyke) walking free sends a message to all those who struggle against police violence that this system is not concerned with true justice,” the group wrote.

The week of Van Dyke’s release, protesters including Jackson as well as McDonald’s grandmother, Tracie Hunter, crowded near Federal Plaza downtown in a demonstration calling for Van Dyke to face federal charges.

Several people who protested inside the courthouse were taken into custody and charged with misdemeanor civil contempt for violating the chief judge’s order governing demonstrations at Dirksen.

However, McDonald’s great-uncle, the Rev. Marvin Hunter, said that while he believes Van Dyke’s sentence was legally improper, most of the family does not support the effort to bring Van Dyke up on new charges.

“My hope is that Jason Van Dyke went to jail and was rehabilitated,” he told the Tribune in an interview earlier this year. “I hope he becomes a better man. … If he gets 1,000 more years it’s not going to bring Laquan back, so we would be better served as a country and as a people if he became better. Our family, we’re not victims, and we’re not going to live our life as victims. We want to be better and not bitter.”

The president of the national chapter of the NAACP sent a letter in February to U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland saying the lack of resolution in the federal case, coupled with Van Dyke’s pending release, was “clearly alarming” to the Black community.

“We trust that you find the matters alarming as well and join with us in our call for closure of that federal grand jury investigation,” wrote NAACP President Derrick Johnson. He also asked for Garland’s commitment in “moving forward with appropriate and applicable federal charges” based on the evidence.

Hours later, U.S. Sens. Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth penned a letter of their own noting that the state conviction does not preclude the filing of federal charges, citing the recent cases against ex- Minneapolis Officer Derek Chauvin, who was charged in both jurisdictions with the May 2020 murder of George Floyd.

“We urge the Justice Department to carefully and expeditiously complete its investigation,” the senators’ letter concluded.

Some of the calls for Van Dyke to be charged again came in reaction to his release after a relatively lenient sentence. Cook County Judge Vincent Gaughan gave him 81 months in prison, but inmates can earn day-for-day credit for good behavior on many felony convictions, including second-degree murder, meaning Van Dyke only had to serve about half his sentence.

Gaughan chose to sentence Van Dyke on the second-degree murder conviction — not the aggravated battery counts — meaning Van Dyke faced a lower sentencing range.

An effort by Special Prosecutor Joseph McMahon and Attorney General Kwame Raoul to have the state’s highest court reconsider the sentence was ultimately unsuccessful.

The state’s highest court declined to hear the petition by a 4-2 vote. The two dissenting judges both noted that Gaughan made his ruling relying on a dissenting opinion that stated the exact opposite of the majority, and the majority opinion is the law of the land.

McDonald’s killing, like many prior shootings by Chicago police, barely made news when it happened. But when gruesome dashcam video of the shooting was ordered released more than a year later, it sparked a firestorm of protests, prompted the firing of police Superintendent Garry McCarthy, and allegations of a City Hall cover-up by Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration.

Van Dyke became the first Chicago police officer to be charged with murder for an on-duty shooting in half a century, and the fallout continued. A team of special prosecutors led by then-Kane County State’s Attorney Joseph McMahon was appointed to handle the Van Dyke case. And then-State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez lost her primary bid to Kim Foxx, who ran on a platform heavily criticizing Alvarez’s handling of the McDonald shooting.

mcrepeau@chicagotribune.com

pfry@chicagotribune.com

jmeisner@chicagotribune.com

©2022 Chicago Tribune. Visit chicagotribune.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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