CHICAGO (CN) — White former Chicago cop Jason Van Dyke was released from Illinois state prison Thursday morning after serving just over three years for the murder of Black teenager Laquan McDonald in 2014.
Van Dyke killed 17-year-old McDonald by shooting him 16 times at close range, including several times after McDonald had already collapsed onto the street. The murder, and the alleged cover-up by the Chicago Police Department that followed, sparked city-wide protests against police brutality and institutional racism.
Van Dyke was convicted of second-degree murder and 16 counts of aggravated battery with a firearm in 2018. Cook County Judge Vincent Gaughan did not include the aggravated battery charges in Van Dyke's sentencing, only ordering that he serve 81 months in prison with the opportunity of parole. As of Thursday, Van Dyke only served about half that time, though per the terms of his release he is still on the hook for three years of supervised parole.
According to NAACP President and CEO Derrick Johnson, along with Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Cook County State's Attorney Kim Foxx, this relatively light sentence is insufficient to address the weight of Van Dyke's crime.
"As I said at the time [of Van Dyke's conviction], while the jury reached the correct guilty verdict, the judge’s decision to sentence Van Dyke to only 81 months was and remains a supreme disappointment," Lightfoot said in a statement released Thursday morning. "I understand why this continues to feel like a miscarriage of justice, especially when many Black and brown men get sentenced to so much more prison time for having committed far lesser crimes."
"The fact of the matter is Jason Van Dyke was convicted for his murder and also convicted 16 times for aggravated battery with the firearm. Those 16 counts would warrant a far greater sentence than was meted out to Jason Van Dyke. That three-and-a-half year sentence did not fit the 16 shots to the body as that boy laid on the ground," Foxx said Tuesday.
Johnson went further than Lightfoot and Foxx in his criticism of Van Dyke's early release. On Tuesday he called for U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland to press federal Title 18 civil rights charges against Van Dyke. The U.S. Attorney's Office announced a grand Jury investigation into McDonald's murder in 2015, and Johnson called it "clearly alarming" that the investigation has not yet reached an actionable conclusion.
"The NAACP, including our over 2 million members and 2,200 units across the country are in anticipation of expedient action by the Office of the U.S. Attorney General in seeking resolution to the unprecedentedly long federal grand jury investigation and the immediate filing of federal charges against [Van Dyke] as warranted," Johnson wrote alongside NAACP Illinois State Conference President Teresa Haley, the letter's co-signatory.
Illinois' two Democratic U.S. senators, Tammy Duckworth and Dick Durbin, also issued a letter to Garland on Tuesday. Like Johnson, they urged the Attorney General's Office to close the investigation quickly so that appropriate federal action, if any, could be taken quickly.
"We look forward to your prompt report on the status of the Justice Department’s investigation and consideration of any federal action on this matter," the senators wrote.
If charged and found guilty of violating Title 18 of the U.S. Code, Van Dyke could potentially serve life in federal prison.
“It’s a killing, it’s a murder. So it’s something you’d expect to be in the higher end” of punishment, said Craig Futterman, a law professor at the University of Chicago, who also explained Van Dyke could not get credit for time served on any federal conviction.
J. Alexander Kueng, Thomas Lane and Tou Thao, three former Minneapolis cops that assisted Derek Chauvin in the fatal arrest of George Floyd in May 2020, are currently on trial for Title 18 charges. Chauvin's murder of Floyd and Van Dyke's murder of McDonald are both part of a long history of police murders of Black men in America, which culminated in 2020 with nationwide and international protests against institutional racism and made abolishing or defunding police a point of mainstream political debate.
In the wake of McDonald's murder, Chicago also established the Civilian Office of Police Accountability, the first civilian police oversight committee in the city's history.
Progressive activist groups in Chicago have called for protests of Van Dyke's release on Thursday, in agreement with local officials that the former police officer's sentence was not commensurate for his crime. Though Lightfoot urged a conciliatory route to racial justice in her Thursday statement, saying the city should "heal" from McDonald's murder and "move forward towards justice and accountability every day," the activists for racial justice were far more vociferous.
"This is an outrage and slap in the face to everyone who marched, demonstrated, occupied space and raised their voice for justice!" The Chicago chapter of the Party for Socialism and Liberation wrote in a social media post Wednesday afternoon calling for demonstrations in front of the city's federal courthouse on Thursday. "Just like Derek Chauvin faced federal civil rights charges in addition to his state charges, Van Dyke can, and should, face the same."
"Every Black and brown person in this city should be outraged. What if it was your son?" said Gregory Sherman, Director of Community Outreach for the social justice group Ex-Cons for Community and Social Change, another group which helped organize the evening's protest march.
That protest began at Chicago's Federal Plaza around 5 p.m., as the sun and the temperature began to drop. Police arrived in force and arrested several of the protestors early on. Despite the below-freezing temperatures, organizers and several dozen of the assembled protestors committed to staying out until those arrested were released about three hours later.
"We're facing a lot of challenges... Covid, the cold. But when you're fighting for something you've got to take risks," said PSL spokesperson Don Gross, explaining why much of his organization chose to wait for the arrestees.
While waiting, numerous protestors continued to vent their frustration that Van Dyke received a less severe sentence for murdering a Black teenager than some Black men have received for non-violent offenses.
"It's a travesty of justice," one protestor calling himself Brother Hood said. "If [Van Dyke] can get less than three years for shooting a child 16 times, what happens the next time a cop only shoots someone five times? 'Hey, that's 11 less than Van Dyke.'"
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