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Do New Charges Against Cop Who Killed Laquan McDonald Give Jurors An Out?

By Erica Demarest | March 23, 2017 11:09am | Updated on March 24, 2017 11:11am
 Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke now faces aggravated battery charges in addition to charges for first-degree murder and official misconduct in the slaying of Laquan McDonald.
Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke now faces aggravated battery charges in addition to charges for first-degree murder and official misconduct in the slaying of Laquan McDonald.
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Chicago Tribune

COOK COUNTY CRIMINAL COURTHOUSE — The Chicago police officer who fatally shot Laquan McDonald in 2014 was indicted this month on 16 counts of aggravated battery — one for each bullet fired at the 17-year-old.

Officer Jason Van Dyke, 38, was indicted in 2015 on six counts of first-degree murder and one count of official misconduct. Those charges still stand.

But the new charges point to possible worries that prosecutors won't be able to convict Van Dyke on the more severe charges, according to Chicago-Kent College of Law professor and former public defender Richard Kling.

"There are myriad possibilities," Kling said. "Are they doing it because they realize there's a problem with the murder charge? Do they think aggravated battery is a more appropriate charge than first-degree murder? Knowing he's a police officer, do they think there's a good chance he won't get convicted?"

Kling, who has handled hundreds of murder cases in his career, said the 16 aggravated battery charges could mean prosecutors are worried the original murder indictment won't stick — or they could simply signify a new legal strategy.

Kling said adding aggravated battery charges gives a judge or jury the ability to still convict Van Dyke of a felony if prosecutors fail to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he's guilty of first-degree murder.

The new charges, which were handed up by a grand jury March 16, were unsealed Thursday morning by Cook County Judge Vincent Gaughan, who presided over a routine status hearing for Van Dyke at Leighton Criminal Courthouse, 2650 S. California Ave.

Van Dyke's defense attorney, Dan Herbert, twice this year has filed motions seeking to dismiss the original 2015 indictment against Van Dyke. Herbert argued that former Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez shared what are known as compelled statements with media outlets and the grand jury responsible for Van Dyke's original 2015 indictment.

RELATED: Van Dyke Was 'Sacrificed To Angry Mob' in Laquan Case, Attorney Says

Van Dyke made the statements in question under threat of being fired, Herbert said, and was "expressly promised" the statements would not be used against him in criminal proceedings.

The judge has not ruled on Herbert's motions.

But on Thursday, special prosecutor Joseph McMahon announced his office on March 16 got a new 23-count indictment against Van Dyke that will supersede the initial 2015 charges. The new charges consist of 16 counts of aggravated battery with a firearm, six counts of first-degree murder and one count of official misconduct.

Herbert is expected to file a response by Van Dyke's next court appearance on April 20.

Prosecutors were unable to discuss the new indictment Thursday due to a gag order previously imposed by Gaughan.

Chicago Police Supt. Eddie Johnson last year moved to have Van Dyke and several other officers fired over allegations they lied after the shooting of McDonald.

RELATED: Did Police Try To Cover Up Laquan McDonald Shooting? Grand Jury Selected

McDonald had been stealing truck radios and was armed with a 3-inch blade on Oct. 20, 2014, when Chicago police officers in Archer Heights called in a radio request for a Taser, prosecutors said.

Van Dyke and his partner responded to the call, but never specified whether they had a Taser. Within seconds of arriving on the scene, Van Dyke pulled his gun and emptied it into McDonald, shooting the teen 16 times. Video of the shooting, which was released via a court order in November 2015, sparked protests that shut down the Mag Mile and other major streets.