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NAACP calls for federal charges against cop who murdered Black Chicago teen

The head of the civil rights group wants the former Chicago officer who fatally shot Laquan McDonald to face the same federal charges brought against three Minneapolis officers involved in George Floyd’s deadly arrest.

CHICAGO (CN) — The president and CEO of the NAACP sent a letter to U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland on Tuesday morning urging him to bring federal civil rights charges against the white former Chicago police officer who killed Laquan McDonald in 2014.

Former officer Jason Van Dyke shot the 17-year-old Black teenager 16 times, including several shots taken after McDonald was already lying on the ground. Van Dyke was convicted of second-degree murder and 16 counts of aggravated battery with a firearm in 2018, and sentenced to a little over six years in prison with the opportunity of parole. He is set to be released this Thursday, having served only about half his original sentence.

Given the weight of Van Dyke's crime, as well as the fact that video of McDonald's murder was allegedly covered up by Chicago police for over a year, activists and social justice groups including the 113-year-old NAACP consider this too lenient of a sentence.

"[Van Dyke] was sentenced to 81 months (out of a possible sentence of 4-15 years) based on the Illinois one act-one crime rule with possibility for parole at 50% time served. Advocates and activists struggled for years to get more time for the officer or at a minimum get him to serve the full sentence but to no avail," NAACP President and CEO Derrick Johnson wrote in his Tuesday letter to Garland.

He added, "It therefore was not a complete surprise, but nonetheless jarring and an afront to the Black community when it was announced during this past Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday weekend that the officer would be eligible for release on Feb. 3, 2022, after only serving about three years of his six-plus year sentence."

The federal grand jury investigation into the full extent of Van Dyke's killing of McDonald, launched in 2015, is still ongoing. In his letter to Garland, Johnson argued that it is unacceptable that the investigation has gone on so long without producing results. He said the soon-to-be-released Van Dyke should be charged for violations of Title 18 of U.S. Code, deprivation of rights under color of law, and urged Garland to finally close the federal investigation.

"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.

Neither Johnson nor NAACP Illinois State Conference President Teresa Haley immediately responded to requests for comment.

Democratic Illinois U.S. Senators Tammy Duckworth and Dick Durbin, who were copied as recipients of the letter to Garland, issued their own joint letter to the attorney general Tuesday urging him to complete the federal investigation quickly, saying they expected a “prompt report” on the investigation’s status and any planned federal action.

“We urge the Justice Department to carefully and expeditiously complete its investigation. 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.

Three former Minneapolis police officers are currently on trial for Title 18 charges over the deadly arrest of George Floyd in May 2020. J. Alexander Kueng, Thomas Lane and Tou Thao assisted convicted murderer Derek Chauvin in the arrest that spurred protests around the nation and world.

Ed Yohnka, a spokesperson for the ACLU of Illinois, said federal civil rights charges are "often kind of a catch all," as the wording of Title 18 is deliberately broad. Should Van Dyke be found guilty of violating the federal statute, he could potentially face life in prison or even the death penalty, though the latter is unlikely.

“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, of the consequences Van Dyke would likely face on a Title 18 conviction.

Futterman also said that the three years Van Dyke has served in prison so far would not count toward any sentence he may receive at the federal level.  

“The federal charges would be a completely new sentence,” he said. “What happened in state court would not affect them.”

Chicago released the dash-cam footage showing Van Dyke shooting McDonald in the back in 2015, only after Cook County Judge Franklin Valderrama ordered it and only after the city had already reached a preemptive $5 million settlement with McDonald's family. The murder and alleged cover-up prompted massive protests in Chicago against police brutality and institutional racism. In the aftermath, then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel fired CPD Superintendent Garry McCarthy, and Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez lost reelection. Though he denied any involvement in the alleged police cover-up, Emanuel himself chose not to run for reelection following the release of the footage.

In 2019, Cook County Judge Domenica Stephenson found three other white Chicago police officers charged with helping orchestrate the alleged cover-up not guilty of all conspiracy and obstruction of justice charges, further incensing anger over the situation.

"The judicial decisions surrounding the McDonald case send a clear message: Black lives matter, they just matter less than those of white law enforcement," Jeffery Robinson, executive director of the Who We Are Project, wrote in 2019.

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