A historic murder conviction of a Chicago cop — and a city’s sigh of relief

Jason Van Dyke was found guilty in the killing of LaQuan McDonald as peaceful protest gathered in Chicago

With an entire city watching, convicted murderer Jason Van Dyke was taken into sheriff’s custody Friday and escorted from the courtroom.

And Chicago exhaled.

Businesses closed early and commuters scurried out of downtown, but the feared riots never materialized. Protests, too, remained peaceful.

And inside the courthouse, the special prosecutor who won Van Dyke’s conviction predicted Chicago would heal from the wounds inflicted by the video-recorded shooting death of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald.

Because this case was never about one cop.

Police scandals in Chicago have come and gone. But since the court-ordered release of a police dashboard camera video showing Van Dyke shooting McDonald as he walked down a Southwest Side street holding a knife, the city has faced a political and social reckoning unlike any in recent decades.

Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy was fired. Voters ousted Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez. Mayor Rahm Emanuel opted not to run for re-election.

Three other Chicago police officers have been charged with conspiring to cover up what really happened on Pulaski Road on the night of Oct. 20, 2014, and are slated to go to trial late next month. In addition to that criminal case, the entire Police Department now faces federal oversight following a U.S. Department of Justice investigation into the shooting.

The video galvanized the city’s activist community, many of whom vowed to maintain their momentum following Van Dyke’s conviction.

“The buck stops here,” said activist William Calloway, who was instrumental in the video’s release. “The buck stops in Chicago.”

A Cook County jury convicted Van Dyke of second-degree murder and 16 counts of aggravated battery with a firearm in connection with McDonald’s death. The verdict marked the first time in more than 50 years that a Chicago police officer has been convicted of murder for an on-duty incident.

In reaching their historic decision, jurors relied heavily on the dashcam video that showed Van Dyke, who is white, firing 16 shots at McDonald, a black teen who appeared to be walking away from officers. Though race was not explicitly mentioned during the testimony, some witnesses made subtle references to skin color.

Special prosecutor Joseph McMahon stunned many in his opening statement when he accused Van Dyke of shooting McDonald because he was a “black boy” who had the audacity to ignore the police.

McMahon, the state’s attorney in suburban Kane County who was appointed because of Cook County prosecutors’ conflicts of interest, told reporters after the verdict that he believed it would have been wrong to ignore the long and fractured history between minority communities and the Chicago Police Department.

“None of us looked at this case and did not understand that there is an element of race in this conversation,” he said. “That issue has permeated the relationship between law enforcement and many communities. I think it was important to talk about what was honest here. That’s why I said it.”

Still, McMahon insisted the McDonald shooting and the conversations it started could ultimately help the city heal.

“The verdict marks an opportunity for this city to come together,” he said.

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