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Calls grow for Chicago officer who killed a Black teenager to face federal charges


Today a former Chicago police officer walks out of prison. Jason Van Dyke was sentenced to just under seven years in prison and served just over half. He was convicted for shooting and killing teenager Laquan McDonald in 2014. Activists do not think the former officer spent enough time in prison and want to see federal civil rights charges next.

NPR's Cheryl Corley is covering the story. Cheryl, good morning.

CHERYL CORLEY, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: I guess we should note this ended up being a murder conviction, so just under seven years does sound a little bit short to some people. He could've received a much longer sentence. How did this come about?

CORLEY: Well, it's because a jury found Jason Van Dyke guilty of second-degree murder and 16 counts of aggravated battery. Prosecutors had asked for a longer term, for 18 to 20 years on the aggravated battery convictions, but Judge Vincent Gaughan sentenced Van Dyke to 81 months. As you mentioned, activists here called that a slap on the wrist. Chicago-Kent College of Law professor Richard Kling says it was interesting.

RICHARD KLING: Here's the craziness of the situation. He was found guilty of second-degree murder. And what the judge ruled is second-degree murder sounds like the more serious charge than aggravated battery.

CORLEY: But under Illinois law, aggravated battery is a much more serious charge than second-degree murder. You can get more time. You have to spend more time in prison. But the judge opted to sentence on that less serious charge. And because Van Dyke received day-to-day good time credit, he was able to serve just a little over three years and get out of prison earlier.

INSKEEP: Well, let's remember the details of the case for which he was convicted, given that it's been years since it happened in 2014.

CORLEY: Yeah. October of 2014, a police dispatcher reported a Black teenager was breaking into cars, carrying a knife. Officer Van Dyke arrived at the scene, almost immediately jumped out of his car. He fired 16 shots at Laquan McDonald, killing him. And many of those shots hit McDonald after he was already on the ground.

You know, the thing about this case is the political overtones. A dashcam video of the shooting wasn't released until a year later under court order. Critics charged it was a cover-up to get through a mayoral election. And there was this huge fallout. The police superintendent at the time was fired. The county's top prosecutor was voted out of office. And the mayor at the time, Rahm Emanuel, was sharply criticized for how he handled this case, and he decided not to seek a third term. And the police department must make mandated reforms under a consent decree.

INSKEEP: But the officer walks away after a little more than three years in prison. So we have a Black teenager killed by a white officer. How likely is it that federal courts would get - or federal prosecutors would get involved?

CORLEY: Well, it might be difficult, but those who are calling for it - the NAACP, Jesse Jackson's Rainbow PUSH and others - point to the federal trial underway in Minneapolis, where the three officers in the George Floyd case who are accused of violating Floyd's civil rights by not preventing his murder by former officer Derek Chauvin - they say the same thing should happen with Jason Van Dyke, that he violated the civil rights of Laquan McDonald. But getting those types of charges has been tough for federal prosecutors. They have to prove that an officer willfully broke the law and that their actions weren't the result of a mistake.

INSKEEP: Cheryl, thanks for the update. Really appreciate it.

CORLEY: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Cheryl Corley in Chicago. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Cheryl Corley is a Chicago-based NPR correspondent who works for the National Desk. She primarily covers criminal justice issues as well as breaking news in the Midwest and across the country.
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.