Chicago (CNN)From “16 shots and a cover-up!” to 16 shots and an early release from prison.
The former became a familiar rallying cry for protesters on the streets of Chicago after the 2014 murder of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald. The latter is the newest reality for former Chicago Police officer Jason Van Dyke.
The officer was sentenced in 2019 to nearly seven years in prison for killing the Black teenager.
“October 20, 2014 will always be the worst day of my life,” Van Dyke read from a written statement during his 2019 sentencing hearing, referencing the day he shot McDonald 16 times. “It was due to my actions that the McDonald family has suffered pain,” he continued.
He was convicted of second-degree murder and 16 counts of aggravated battery with a firearm.
Van Dyke is now being released after just a little more than three years, which is tied to good behavior in prison. While it’s less than half of his original sentence, it was largely expected.
“In Illinois, individuals who are sentenced to prison are eligible for, by law, statutory good time,” said Joe McMahon, the former special prosecutor who led the state conviction of Van Dyke.
“When I think back what my reaction was in 2019 when this sentence was handed down, (it) was wow,” McMahon told CNN. “He’s going to be out fairly quick.”
At the time, McMahon had asked for Van Dyke to serve 18-20 years.
“I understand the sentence that was imposed is less than what a lot of people wanted. It’s less than what I asked for, it’s less than what I thought was appropriate,” McMahon told CNN.
However, he added, “This was a successful prosecution. It’s incredibly rare for a police officer in any jurisdiction — especially here in Chicago — to be charged, convicted and sentenced to prison for murder. That’s the message.”
It’s a sentiment echoed by even some of McDonald’s family.
The Rev. Marvin Hunter, McDonald’s great uncle, told CNN, “We never asked for revenge, we asked for justice. And in the case of Jason Van Dyke we feel we got justice, because he got prosecuted for the crime that he did. He did not do the amount of time that we felt like he should have done, but he did get prosecuted.”
Calls for federal charges
Many have called for Van Dyke to face federal charges after he completes his state sentence. They include the NAACP, some McDonald family members and even US Rep. Bobby Rush, who represents a large part of Chicago’s South Side.
“This sentence was a slap on the wrist,” Rush told CNN.
“Justice has not really been served. And so there’s no comfort, there’s no relaxing. There’s no sense of, ‘Well, let’s move on,’ because we can’t move on,” he said. “I can’t rest comfortably until I know have exhausted all the means.”
The NAACP even penned a letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland days before Van Dyke’s release asking him to “provide your commitment to move forward with appropriate and applicable federal charges.”
A Justice Department spokesperson acknowledged receiving the letter, along with a similar one from Illinois’ two US senators, Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth, and said the department was reviewing the information.
Not everyone wants federal charges for Van Dyke, though, including members of McDonald’s own family.
“A lot of this stuff that you see happening, it’s not about Laquan McDonald, it’s not about criminal justice reform, it’s about Cash Apps and Zelles,” Hunter told CNN.
For starters, he said he feels some people who are evoking McDonald’s name are more concerned with themselves than reforming the system. Secondly, he said he worries about the implications of levying federal charges in this particular situation.
“If they are successful at Mr. Van Dyke being charged at the federal level,” he said, “it’ll set a precedent in this country for hundreds and thousands of Black men that are still in prison, some of whom are innocent, that whenever they do their time … they could use it to reprosecute them and keep them there.”
Separately, McMahon told CNN the trial investigation was a joint state and federal undertaking.
“We worked very closely with the US Attorney’s Office in the Northern District of Illinois to identify witnesses and to collect evidence and to document testimony and statements of eyewitnesses and other police officers. That work was critical,” he said. “While I understand there can be separate prosecutions brought by different sovereigns, the state case that was brought against Jason Van Dyke was really a significant joint undertaking between the state of Illinois and federal government.”
CNN reached out to the US Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Illinois about any investigative involvement it had connected to the state trial but has not heard back.
No video, no conviction
The critical dashcam video in the McDonald case was not made public for more than a year after Van Dyke shot and killed the 17-year-old.
The vast majority of the ensuing protests centered on what was deemed by the city’s inspector general as an elaborate cover-up.
Police initially claimed McDonald pointed a knife at Van Dyke in the October 2014 incident. The police dashcam video, however, showed something completely different: McDonald moving away from Van Dyke, with his back turned, before being shot 16 times.
“Do you think you would’ve gotten a conviction here if not for the existence of that dashcam video?” CNN’s Omar Jimenez asked McMahon, to which he responded, “No.”
“The narrative would’ve been dictated and controlled, really, by members of the Chicago Police Department,” said McMahon. “Their attempts to really control the narrative of what Jason Van Dyke did and how it was so different from what he actually did — I think that backfired.”
Hunter described what happened that night as a modern-day lynching.
“That’s what you saw with Laquan McDonald — they were invoking fear! This is what you do when you get out of line. This is what you do when you do anything other than what we tell you,” he told CNN.
While the critical video horrifically showed what happened, it also showed what didn’t.
“After Laquan had been shot 16 times,” McMahon said, “he was left to die in the middle of the street. And there were at least a dozen members of the Chicago Police Department who were standing there and not a single police officer rendered aid.”
That dynamic is part of what widened the scope for Hunter.
“The real problem in America is not Jason Van Dyke. It’s the system that Jason Van Dyke worked for. And we need to begin to change the system,” he told CNN.
Hunter said he feels the sentence wasn’t strong enough and didn’t take into account the full scope of McDonald’s suffering.
“They reduced this boy to a second-class citizen by saying that no matter what happened to him and how he suffered, we’re not going to take his suffering into consideration. We’re just going to create a sentence whereby you all will be satisfied because he’s going to jail. And you all (on the other side of the issue) will be satisfied because he didn’t spend his life in jail,” said Hunter.
“That is not how the justice system in this country was designed to be. If you’re wrong, you should pay for what you’ve done.”