By Erick Johnson
The “Trial of the Century” in Chicago is over. No more morning rush hour drives to the courthouse and going through metal detectors. No more early-morning reports on Chicago’s iconic WVON radio station, called in from a musty parking garage across from a building where so many Black males have gone through and which too few bad cops have stepped foot in.
But for all the sacrifices and headaches of covering the murder trial of Chicago Officer Jason Van Dyke, it was worth it. Finally seeing a police officer led out of the courtroom left me speechless. Dressed in a black suit, he looked as if he was going to his own funeral. Only I, and a handful of Black clergy and activists in the courtroom, were not mourning. Silently, we were rejoicing.
It was a day many Blacks in Chicago never thought they would see. A white police officer found guilty of killing Laquan McDonald, a Black teenager, and locked up immediately after his historic conviction. For Black Chicago, it was the trial of the century, a moment they had been waiting for a long time.
For this Black journalist, it was history unfolding before my very eyes. It was a story that changed Chicago forever and the climatic ending was about to take place in courtroom 500.
I had a seat in the front row that was reserved for the media. Just yards away from Laquan McDonald’s killer, I often sat on the edge of my seat.
For most of the trial, I sat next to Jamie Kalven. He’s the prominent investigative journalist from the journalism production company the Invisible Institute, which first broke the story that included the official autopsy report that McDonald had 16 bullet wounds in his body.
At 7:35 a.m. on Friday, October 5, I was on WVON to file my daily update of the trial. Tired from another grueling week at the Leighton Criminal Courthouse, I called in to the radio station from my apartment in South Shore. My gut feeling was that Van Dyke would be convicted, which is what I had shared with the Chicago Crusader staff all week after watching Van Dyke contradict the video, himself and even his defense team on the witness stand.
That Friday I told the show’s host Maze Jackson, there would be a verdict later that day. The only question was when.
I stayed in bed until 12:40 p.m. While I was in the shower, WGN Journalist Kelly Barnacle sent me an email saying the jury had reached a verdict. It would be announced at 1:45 p.m.
I dashed out the door wearing flip flops, drove to the courthouse on the West Side and got inside the courtroom around 1:40 p.m. By then all the seats for the media had been taken. I tried to sit in the third row, where Van Dyke’s wife, Tiffany sat. But a big white guy growled at me, saying I couldn’t sit there, although there was room for three people.
I tried to sit in the back, but one of the court officers was called and told to sit with the media even though there were no more spaces available. Suddenly a television reporter made room for me on row two and put me right in front of Tiffany Van Dyke.
When the jury foreman on Friday, October 5 read the verdict that convicted her husband of second-degree murder for shooting Black teenager Laquan McDonald 16 times on October 20, 2014, I immediately looked at Tiffany. Her face turned to gloom. She said nothing. In fact, the entire courtroom was eerily silent. William Calloway, the activist who helped force the release of the video, kept nodding as the jury foreman read “guilty” for each of the 16 counts of aggravated battery with a firearm.
So many years of pain had come to an end, but a new era had dawned in Chicago.
I couldn’t believe it was happening, but it was. A justice system that for decades was viewed as broken by thousands of Blacks and minorities had finally worked and convicted a Chicago police officer of killing a Black teenager. My assignment was over, but an exciting moment for Black Chicago was just beginning.
It all happened because of Laquan McDonald, a Black teenager who in life was a ward of the state. In death, McDonald became a modern-day Emmett Till (another Chicago teenager who was brutally killed in 1955 during a visit to Mississippi). Till’s death helped spark the Civil Rights Movement, but McDonald’s sparked an effort among Black activists to clean up Chicago and changed the city forever.
It’s happening, and Chicago is finally on the brink of change that many have dreamed about since its first Black mayor, Harold Washington, was elected in 1983.
For the last four years, two rusty institutions, Chicago’s City Hall and the Chicago Police Department, have been forced to finally change. It comes after a video was released showing McDonald’s brutal murder in front of at least ten officers who did nothing to stop Van Dyke, but instead are accused of filing false reports to try to cover up the crime.
Contrary to the police video, Van Dyke also lied after the shooting, and lied on the witness stand. Throughout the trial, he stood silent next to one of his defense attorneys, Randy Rueckart, but during closing arguments he had a smirk on his face throughout the proceedings. He looked creepy at times. At one point, he came behind me to speak to his wife. I got the chills.
But a jury saw through Van Dyke’s smoke and mirrors and convicted Van Dyke anyway of second-degree murder, but with 16 counts of aggravated battery with a firearm. The convictions could put the murderer behind bars for the rest of his life if Judge Vincent Gaughan brings down the hammer at Van Dyke’s sentencing on Halloween, October 31.
To Van Dyke and his family, it’s a scary possibility. To Black Chicago, it’s a just punishment for an officer who haunted Chicago the last several years as we watched the video of him ripping into McDonald with a Smith and Wesson 45 firearm. His name is Jason and unlike the Halloween film series, the killer with the badge won’t be back for a sequel.
While the verdict was the end for Van Dyke, it was certainly the beginning of a new day for disenfranchised Blacks and minorities in Chicago. In addition to City Hall and the police department, the justice system in Cook County is finally showing some life too.
Which is why the guilty verdict of Van Dyke is so significant for Chicago and perhaps America.
In the most segregated city in America, all three Chicago institutions are on the cusp of experiencing unprecedented change like never before. For decades City Hall, the police department and the Cook County justice system were viewed as broken institutions that together, allowed police brutality and misconduct to run rampant in the city’s Black and low-income neighborhoods.
Things slowly began to change in Chicago when McDonald’s shocking death made headlines around the world. Police Superintendent McCarthy was fired, Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez was ousted in the 2016 Democratic Primary and the mayor himself decided not to seek another term in office at the start of the Van Dyke trial.
Before his decision, the mayor tried to win back trust in the Black community by appointing Blacks in high positions and building new schools and bridges in the Black community.
The Chicago Police Department, Chicago Transit Authority, Chicago Public Schools, Chicago Housing Authority and the Chicago Department of Water Management are headed by Blacks. Last month, the mayor appointed Richard Ford II to become the city’s second Black Fire Commissioner in the department that for 160 years had been led by Irish and white leaders. Five of these leaders were appointed after the scandal broke. Often viewed as puppets of the mayor, they are now free lead for the people now that the mayor is leaving office. And with the city’s mayoral elections just over four months away, Chicago may get its first Black female mayor.
William Calloway, the activist who got us to this point, is now talking about sweeping out the city’s Black aldermen. According to an explosive exposé in the Crusader last week, many of the aldermen took thousands of dollars from the mayor less than a month before they approved a $5 million settlement on April 15, 2015 for the family of McDonald.
In addition, the city has agreed to sweeping reforms in a new Consent Decree with the Chicago Police Department after a scathing U.S. Justice Report in 2017. The report said officers routinely used excessive force on Blacks and minorities and were rarely disciplined for misconduct. Since Emanuel took office in 2011, the city has paid at least $280 million to settle police misconduct cases, many of which involve Black residents. In an investigation of 450 cases of police misconduct, the Chicago in 2016 Tribune found that city often fights to keep files secret during and after settlement talks with victims of alleged police brutality. The $5 million settlement with McDonald’s family was no different until the video broke the scandal wide open.
In two years under Cook County’s first Black State’s Attorney Kim Foxx, 42 people have been exonerated years after they were convicted with the help of crooked cops Sergeant Ronald Watts and the notorious Jon Burge, who ironically died last month during the second week of Van Dyke’s trial. Many of their victims are Black and poor.
Van Dyke’s guilty verdict was the latest and perhaps most crushing blow to a system that stood tall for decades. Not only did it renew hope in a creaky criminal justice system, but it also sent a stern warning to bad cops in Chicago and across the nation that their time is up. And it may be a foreshadowing to another police misconduct trial that’s set for November 26 in Chicago, involving three officers who are accused of falsifying police reports to cover up what I can now say was a murder.
Police shootings or killings in America have come and gone in the last five years. The officers who have gunned down Black males are back patrolling the streets while the names of their victims have faded: Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, Alton Sterling and Philandro Castro. The list goes on and on.
They left behind sons, daughters, families and communities that will take a long time to heal. Their loved ones’ killer, like many, are never charged with taking someone’s life or rarely see a courtroom.
This summer, Dallas Officer Roy Oliver was sentenced to 15 years in prison after being convicted of murder in the shooting death of Jordan Edwards. The victim’s family said the sentence wasn’t enough.
Likewise, many felt Van Dyke should have been convicted of first-degree murder. But guilty on 16 counts of aggravated battery plus second-degree murder? I’ll take that.
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