CHICAGO — Chicago Police officer Jason Van Dyke was sentenced Friday to six years and nine months in prison for the 16-shot, videotaped slaying of teenager Laquan McDonald.
After a complicated legal ruling, the 40-year-old Van Dyke escaped what could have amounted to a life sentence in a closely-watched case that drew months of protests.
Van Dyke was found guilty of second-degree murder and 16 counts of aggravated battery with a firearm on Oct. 5. The charges stemmed from the 2014 slaying of 17-year-old McDonald.
Activist William Calloway, who fought to bring the video of Van Dyke shooting McDonald to light, said he was incredibly disappointed by the sentence.
“We’re devastated, we’re heartbroken, but we’re not giving up,” Calloway said, according to ABC Chicago. “That’s a slap in the face to us and a slap on the wrist to him.”
Judge Vincent Gaughan ruled the convictions meant Van Dyke should serve 81 months in prison and two years of supervised released. Prosecutors had sought 18 years. Van Dyke’s defense asked for probation.
A legal analyst told ABC Chicago that Van Dyke could be released in about three years, considering good behavior and time-served.
After the ruling, Van Dyke’s attorney Daniel Herbert told reporters that his client was “happy” for the first time since “this whole ordeal started,” according to the Tribune.
The sentence came after a day of emotional testimony, including from Van Dyke’s family. Van Dyke himself gave a short statement, noting it was the first time he had ever fired his gun on the job. He said that night marked the worst in his life.
“I have prayed daily for the soul of Laquan McDonald,” he told the judge.
“The last thing I ever wanted to do, especially on October 20, 2014, was to shoot Laquan McDonald. … No one wants to take someone’s life, even in defense of your own. It’s a choice you have to live with forever.”
Van Dyke’s conviction meant there was potential for decades in prison if the judge opted to stack sentences for all 16 aggravated battery with a firearm convictions on top of each other. With a minimum sentence of 6 years for each charge, Van Dyke could have gotten 96 years in prison.
Several aldermen and candidates for mayor slammed the sentence Friday evening, calling it an injustice.
Ald. Roderick Sawyer (6th) tweeted that the sentence amounts to a denial of justice for the McDonald family.
“Every young Black person in this city rightfully feels unsafe knowing that their lives are viewed as disposable by our broken judicial system,” Sawyer tweeted. “People have killed animals and been sentenced to more time in prison.”
The sentencing range drew little consensus among experts leading up to Friday, creating much anticipation for Gaughan’s ruling.
In explaining his decision, Gaughan ruled he needed to sentence Van Dyke on the most serious offense and not stack the convictions on top of each other. The most serious offense, Gaughan said, was second-degree murder. The judge argued an aggravated battery with a firearm conviction could be as simple as someone being shot unjustly in the pinkie. Second-degree murder, he argued, is therefore more serious.
That decision meant the aggravated battery counts did not factor into the sentence.
The sentence comes just one day after three current and former Chicago Police officers, including Van Dyke’s partner, were acquitted of covering up McDonald’s killing by falsifying police reports in the aftermath of the shooting.
McDonald, who was armed with a 3-inch blade, was stealing truck radios when Chicago police officers in Archer Heights called in a request for a Taser on Oct. 20, 2014, prosecutors said.
Van Dyke and his partner responded to the call. Within seconds of arriving on the scene, Van Dyke pulled his gun and emptied his clip into McDonald, shooting the teen 16 times.
Prosecutors said police dashcam video clearly showed McDonald walking away from officers. Van Dyke testified McDonald made a move toward him after repeatedly being told to drop the knife.
Prosecutors also argued there were 10 officers on the scene and no one other than Van Dyke fired shots.
It took jurors two days of deliberating to find Van Dyke guilty of second-degree murder and aggravated battery. He was acquitted of official misconduct.
Van Dyke originally faced a charge of first-degree murder, but jurors were allowed to consider the second-degree murder charge. That charge means there was a mitigating factor in the murder that did not justify it but lessened the potential sentence.
Van Dyke has been in custody since his conviction.
The case drew months of protests and led to the firing of Chicago Police Supt. Garry McCarthy by Mayor Rahm Emanuel. The mayor himself later opted to not seek re-election.