More than 4 years after police Officer Jason Van Dyke shot Laquan McDonald 16 times on South Pulaski Road, more than 3 years after video of the killing rocked Chicago and America, the hurt and anger of an anguished Chicago spilled out Friday in a Cook County courtroom.
Rival witnesses with strong and similar emotions channeled this raw third of a decade in Chicago at Van Dyke’s sentencing for second-degree murder: Some spoke of the city’s violent nature and the mission police officers perform in gang-infested neighborhoods. Others gave testimonials of mistreatment that evoked the demands for greater police accountability this case incited. Their fraught voices, their moving words, sought to influence Cook County Judge Vincent Gaughan.
We generally don’t second-guess the sentences judges imposed. But before he sentenced Van Dyke to 6 ¾ years in prison, Gaughan told trial participants and spectators that 100 percent of them would be unhappy with his ruling. He was acknowledging that while some Chicagoans wanted Van Dyke imprisoned for life, others thought probation would be more than sufficient.
Friday’s most compelling words came not from the judge or from the dueling pundits who complimented and denounced the sentence. The most compelling words came from those witnesses. Among those aching voices of a Chicago that hasn’t yet healed:
“I am a 17-year-old boy. I am a victim of murder in the second degree,” said McDonald’s great-uncle, the Rev. Marvin Hunter, who was reading a letter written in the spirit of his now-deceased grand-nephew. “I am unable to speak with my own voice. ... What happened to me can never be changed, but other young black men and women will not have to face Jason Van Dyke and his evil and selfish ways. ... I’m a real victim of murder and that can never be changed. Please think about me and my life when you sentence this person to prison.”
Van Dyke’s 17-year-old daughter, Kaylee, described her despair at seeing her dad in jail. “I touch his hand through a piece of dirty glass and speak on a phone that the connection breaks in and out of,” she said. She read from a paper she wrote for her civics class about the difficult role police officers must play: “Many get police brutality confused with assertiveness or having to deal with people who are out of control.”
Edward Nance sobbed in court as he recounted being pulled over on a South Side street in 2007 by Van Dyke. Nance, who is African-American, said Van Dyke shouted obscenities and forcefully pulled Nance from his vehicle. Nance said he was dragged in handcuffs by Van Dyke to a squad car and thrown face down into the back seat, causing injury. “I can’t lift 10 pounds with my left arm,” said Nance, who filed a federal lawsuit against Chicago and Van Dyke and was awarded $350,000. “I can’t referee no more. I’m in constant pain every day.”
“He loves with all of his heart,” Van Dyke’s wife, Tiffany, testified. “There is no malice, no hatred, there is no racism to my husband. He was a great police officer dedicated to the city of Chicago. They have lost a great officer.”
Chicago’s years of torment over this case had funneled down to one day’s agony.
It would be heartless to say, “Put it behind us.”
It would be hopeful to say that all Chicagoans can work toward a safer, fairer city.