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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)

'A Dereliction of Duty': No Federal Charges for Chicago Cop Who Murdered Laquan McDonald

"If you believe Black lives matter, now is the time to prove it and call on Attorney General Merrick Garland and the Justice Department to do their jobs and bring federal charges against Van Dyke."

Jessica Corbett

Less than three months after Jason Van Dyke was released from prison, U.S. Attorney John Lausch's office announced Monday that the former Chicago police officer who murdered 17-year-old Laquan McDonald while on the job in October 2014 will not face federal charges.

"A white officer shooting 16 bullets into the body of a 17-year-old Black child—and then reloading his gun with more—warrants federal charges."

In apparent contrast to claims in Lausch's lengthy statement, McDonald's aunt, Tanisha Hunter, denied that she, his mother, or his grandmother had been in contact with the office and told a Chicago Sun-Times reporter that she was not previously aware of the decision.

"We were not aware of any of that. I just talked to my sister, and she didn't say anything about it," Hunter said. "I'm upset. That's all I can say. How could they say that? We're the ones who should make that decision, not someone else. We're talking about his momma, his grandma. That's crazy."

In October 2018, a jury in Cook County, Illinois found Van Dyke—who is white—guilty of second-degree murder and 16 counts of aggravated battery for killing the Black teenager. Van Dyke was sentenced to six years and nine months in prison but he was released early in February, which renewed calls for federal civil rights charges.

Kina Collins—a gun violence prevention activist who is now running as a Democrat to represent Illinois' 7th Congressional District, which includes part of Chicago—has repeatedly spoken out about McDonald's murder as well as Van Dyke's resulting conviction and early release. Responding to the latest development in a statement Monday, she declared: "This is disgusting. It is a dereliction of duty from the U.S. attorney and the federal government he represents. It is a slap in the face to Black Chicagoans and all Americans."

"For years, the Black community here in Chicago has protested and cried out for accountability. And for months, we have pleaded with our broken system to bring federal charges against Van Dyke—the same charges that Derek Chauvin pleaded guilty to in December," she noted, referencing the Minneapolis officer who killed George Floyd in May 2020. "We've even gotten arrested while trying to ensure that this message gets across."

"Once again, our words have been ignored. And once again, our nation's criminal justice system is proving to be more criminal and less just. It's once again telling Black Chicagoans that our lives—and our deaths—do not matter," Collins charged. "So let me say this to U.S. Attorney John Lausch, because he clearly doesn't understand: Sixteen bullets into Laquan's body is a clear-cut violation of his civil rights. A white officer shooting 16 bullets into the body of a 17-year-old Black child—and then reloading his gun with more—warrants federal charges. End of discussion."

"And let me say this to every elected official in Chicago and across the country: If you believe Black lives matter, now is the time to prove it and call on Attorney General Merrick Garland and the Justice Department to do their jobs and bring federal charges against Van Dyke," she added. "The buck doesn't stop at a U.S. attorney who refuses to do his job."

Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Dick Durbin and Sen. Tammy Duckworth, both Democrats from Illinois, sent Garland a letter earlier this year calling for an update on the federal investigation.  NAACP president Derrick Johnson and Illinois State Conference president Teresa Haley went even further in their letter to Garland, urging him to end the probe and "move forward with appropriate and applicable federal charges."

Lausch's office said Monday that its decision "is consistent with Department of Justice policy and was made in consultation with Mr. McDonald's family," and that the U.S. attorney "has spoken with a representative of Mr. McDonald's family on multiple occasions over the past three years, including recently, to discuss the factors the Department of Justice considers when deciding to bring a second prosecution. The family was in agreement not to pursue a second prosecution, and the office respects their position."

The Associated Press noted Monday that in February, "McDonald's great-uncle, the Rev. Marvin Hunter, said that while he thought Van Dyke should have received a much longer sentence, he did not want to see Van Dyke charged in federal court."

"If you set this precedent of reconvicting people because you don't think he got enough time, then hundreds of thousands of Black men in Illinois alone could be harmed," he said at the time. "They will use this case as a way to keep them incarcerated. This is a back door to perpetuate slavery. We should be very careful of this kind of precedent."

The statement from Lausch's office also highlighted that "a federal trial would not be a retrial of the state case," explaining:

There is no general murder charge under federal law that would apply. 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. 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. It requires federal prosecutors to prove beyond a reasonable doubt what Mr. Van Dyke was thinking when he used deadly force, and that he knew such force was excessive. The federal law presents a very high bar—more stringent than the state charges on which Mr. Van Dyke was convicted.

Even if a federal trial resulted in a conviction, the federal judge imposing sentence would be obligated to consider the 81-month state sentence previously imposed, as well as other relevant factors, including the same aggravating and mitigating factors presented at Mr. Van Dyke's extensive state-court sentencing hearing; the fact that Mr. Van Dyke served his state prison sentence with conduct entitling him under state law to be released early; and the fact that Mr. Van Dyke no longer is and never again will be a police officer. Given these factors, there is a significant prospect that a second prosecution would diminish the important results already achieved.

The office's explanation was not a sufficient justification for some critics.

Ja'Mal Green, a Black Lives Matter activist and former Chicago mayoral candidate, tweeted Monday that "this isn't justice but this is America, a country of systems we must break down!"

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