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chicago 2018

Demonstrators react to the verdict in the murder trial of former Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke along Chicago's Michigan Avenue on October 5, 2018. (Photo: Joshua Lott/Getty Images)

'Senselessly Unjust': Ex-Chicago Cop Who Killed Laquan McDonald Released From Prison

The Justice Department is facing pressure to bring federal charges against Jason Van Dyke, who served less than half of his 81-month sentence after being convicted of second-degree murder.

Jessica Corbett

Critics of police violence toward Black Americans expressed outrage as Jason Van Dyke, the former Chicago cop who killed 17-year-old Laquan McDonald in October 2014, was released Thursday after serving just over three years in prison for a state murder charge.

"This man doesn't need to get out. We are seeking federal charges. The time he did wasn't enough."

"A white officer who murdered a 17-year-old Black child by firing 16 shots into his body is walking free today after just three years behind bars. Think about that. Just three years for a violent, vicious attack that killed a child," tweeted Kina Collins, a Democratic candidate running to represent Illinois' 7th Congressional District, which includes part of Chicago.

A Cook County, Illinois jury found Van Dyke guilty of second-degree murder and 16 counts of aggravated battery in October 2018. He was sentenced to six years and nine months in prison the following January. The judge's decision to merge all charges for sentencing was significant because the 16 battery counts each had a mandatory minimum of a six-year prison term.

"An 81-month sentence for the gruesome murder of a child was inadequate in the first place," said Collins. "For Van Dyke to walk free in less than half that time is senselessly unjust."

WGN TV reports that Chicago activists "plan on holding a 'large demonstration' in Federal Plaza Thursday around 4:00 pm to express their displeasure, with at least 15 social and civil rights groups pledging their attendance."

Leading up to Van Dyke's release this week, activists, the NAACP, and political figures have urged the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) to update the public on an investigation that was announced in April 2015 and to pursue federal charges against the convicted murderer.

"We've been crying aloud for federal charges on Jason Van Dyke for the past three years," community organizer William Calloway told WGN TV. "It shouldn't take this to happen, to be on the cusp of his release, to get federal charges pressed on him."

Tracie Hunter, McDonald's grandmother, said of Van Dyke that "this man doesn't need to get out. We are seeking federal charges. The time he did wasn't enough."

Collins, in her Thursday morning Twitter thread, said that "I'm calling on U.S. Attorney John Lausch Jr. and U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland to intervene and bring federal charges against Jason Van Dyke to ensure that he is held accountable."

The congressional candidate also blasted former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel's recent confirmation as U.S. ambassador to Japan. U.S. Rep. Cori Bush (D-Mo.) on Wednesday similarly slammed Emanuel's new post and called for federal charges against Van Dyke.

Bush also shared a letter that NAACP leaders sent to Garland Tuesday which said the "lack of resolution" in the investigation coupled with the release of the "disgraced" ex-cop is "clearly alarming" and "has given rise to very vocal concerns and unrest" in Chicago.

"We trust that you find the matters alarming as well," wrote NAACP president Derrick Johnson and Illinois State Conference president Teresa Haley, urging Garland to close the investigation and "move forward with appropriate and applicable federal charges based on the federal grand jury findings and other relevant evidence."

A DOJ spokesperson confirmed to CNN that the department received the NAACP letter as well as one from Illinois' two Democratic U.S. senators, who wrote to Garland that "the facts of this case remain shocking and upsetting," and demanded an update on the federal investigation.

As Sens. Tammy Duckworth and Dick Durbin, the Senate Judiciary chair, detailed:

In April 2015, the U.S. Attorney's Office announced a joint federal and state investigation into the shooting; however, there was never an announcement that the federal investigation had closed after Van Dyke was convicted of state charges. In October 2019, when activists called for federal civil rights charges against Van Dyke and other officers involved in the cover up of the murder, the U.S. Attorney's Office declined to state whether the federal investigation was still ongoing or closed. Last week, the U.S. Attorney's Office again declined to comment on the status of the investigation.

Van Dyke's state conviction and sentencing do not preempt or negate the interest of the federal government, if the evidence supports charging Van Dyke with violating McDonald's civil rights under Section 242 of Title 18. The recent federal civil rights case against former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin demonstrates this; after Chauvin was found guilty by a state jury and sentenced to 22 years for murdering George Floyd, Chauvin pleaded guilty to federal civil rights charges under Section 242. Chauvin admitted that his willful use of unreasonable force resulted in Floyd's death. Under the terms of the plea agreement, Chauvin faces a sentence of over 20 years in prison.

"We urge the Justice Department to carefully and expeditiously complete its investigation," the senators wrote, telling Garland that they "look forward to your prompt report" on the probe.

Collins, in a statement Tuesday, said that "this is a step in the right direction" for the senators, "but let's be clear: we don't just need an update, we need charges filed."

"This is an open and shut case," she said. "This murder was a clear-cut violation of Laquan McDonald's civil rights. Just like in Chauvin's case, the federal charges against Van Dyke should be straightforward. It's past time for the federal charges to be filed."

U.S. Rep. Jesús "Chuy" García, who represents Illinois' 4th Congressional District, said Thursday that "there can never be justice for Laquan McDonald, but Jason Van Dyke's early release negates even the small measure of accountability that his conviction provided."

"Van Dyke's early release is a slap in the face to our communities, and today I join the call for the Department of Justice to consider bringing civil rights charges against Van Dyke," García added. "Laquan's life mattered. Black Lives Matter."


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