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Feds won’t charge former Chicago cop who killed Black teen

Jason Van Dyke, the white former Chicago police officer who was convicted in state court for the 2014 murder of Black teenager Laquan McDonald, was released early from prison this past February.

CHICAGO (CN) — U.S. Attorney John Lausch announced Monday afternoon that his office would not be pursuing federal criminal charges against Jason Van Dyke, the white former Chicago cop who shot and killed 17-year-old Laquan McDonald in 2014.

A prepared statement put out by Lausch's office on Monday says that the decision not to press federal charges was reached after consultation with McDonald's family.

"U.S. Attorney Lausch 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 statement reads.

Van Dyke's murder of McDonald, the alleged year-long cover-up of the shooting by the Chicago Police Department that followed, and the $5 million settlement the city reached with McDonald's family over the shooting, all sparked regional protests against police brutality and institutional racism in 2015. The Chicago City Council established the Civilian Office of Police Accountability in the aftermath in 2016 to act as a more robust replacement for the city's old Independent Police Review Authority, and then-Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel was also implicated in the alleged cover-up. He declined to run for reelection in 2019.

Van Dyke was convicted of second-degree murder in Cook County in 2018 for the killing, along with 16 counts of aggravated battery with a firearm. Video of the incident shows Van Dyke shooting McDonald 16 times at close range, including several times after the young man had already collapsed onto the street.

Van Dyke was released from state prison on parole this past February, having only served about half of his initial 81-month sentence.

Lausch's office said Monday that federal law is "more stringent" than the state murder charges on which Van Dyke was convicted in 2018. The statement opines that it would be exceedingly difficult to make federal charges stick against Van Dyke, given this high legal threshold.

"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," the statement reads. "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 statement adds that even if a federal trial resulted in a new conviction of Van Dyke, his prior murder conviction and pre-existing sentence would "diminish" a guilty verdict.

"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," the statement reads. "Given these factors, there is a significant prospect that a second prosecution would diminish the important results already achieved."

The announcement rebuffs calls for federal prosecution of Van Dyke from civil rights groups like the NAACP. Derrick Johnson, President and CEO of the NAACP, urged U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland in February to press federal Title 18 civil rights charges against Van Dyke. The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Chicago first launched a grand jury investigation into McDonald’s murder in 2015, and in February Johnson called it “clearly alarming” that the investigation had 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 said officer as warranted,” Johnson wrote in an open letter in February, alongside NAACP Illinois State Conference President Teresa Haley.

The national and Illinois branches of the NAACP did not immediately return requests for comment on Monday.

Local social justice groups also balked at the announcement. Gregory Sherman, director of community outreach for the Chicago activist group Ex-Cons for Community and Social Change, said he was "unfortunately not surprised" at the turn of events.

"It's another example of police and frankly white America being held to a different standard than regular America," Sherman said.

Another social justice group, The Chicago Alliance against Racist and Political Repression, said on social media Monday that it would continue pressing Lausch's office and the U.S. Department of Justice to prosecute Van Dyke regardless of the announcement. A petition circulated by the group calling for Van Dyke's federal indictment has currently amassed over 1,000 signatures.

Sherman, alternatively, said his group was not planning to contest the U.S. Attorney's decision itself. Instead he said they would work with other social justice organizations in the area to agitate for legislation that would discourage and punish police violence, particularly against Black people.

"This is a tragic day in history, but unfortunately it's also water under the bridge," Sherman said. "We've got to work harder to pass legislation so police can't get away with this kind of thing."

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