Prosecutors in Van Dyke trial: ‘Not a single shot was necessary’

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CHICAGO — Nearly four years after Laquan McDonald was shot 16 times, the trial of the officer who killed him began Monday.

Jason Van Dyke, 40, is the first Chicago police officer in decades to be charged with murder for an on-duty incident. A 12-person jury will decide his fate.

Special prosecutor Joe McMahon holds Laquan Mcdonald's knife as he speaks during the opening remarks at the trial of Jason Van Dyke for the shooting death of Laquan McDonald at the Leighton Criminal Court Building, Monday, Sept. 17, 2018.
(Antonio Perez/pool/Chicago Tribune)

"We're here today because the defendant shot Laquan McDonald 16 times when it was completely unnecessary," special prosecutor Joe McMahon said during his opening statement at the Leighton Criminal Court Building, 2650 S. California Ave. "Not a single shot was necessary or justified."

Prosecutors said McDonald, 17, was armed with a three-inch blade, high on PCP and attempting to steal car radios when confronted by police on Oct. 20, 2014. McDonald used the knife to scratch a squad car window and pop one of its tires.

McDonald should've been arrested for his actions, McMahon said, not shot. Prosecutors allege Van Dyke shot McDonald 16 times in a span of 12.5 seconds.

"In total," McMahon said slowly, "this defendant decides to shoot not once, not twice, but three, four, five, six, seven, eight — we’re only halfway done — nine, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16 times total."

Jason Van Dyke's lawyer, Daniel Herbert, motions with the 3-inch blade Laquan McDonald carried the night he was fatally shot, during opening statements in the trial of Chicago police Officer Jason Van Dyke at the Leighton Criminal Court Building on Sept. 17, 2018, in Chicago. (Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune/pool)

"That's not what happened," lead defense counsel Dan Herbert countered in his opening statement. "It was pop pop pop pop pop."

Herbert spoke of Van Dyke's morning that October day. He made breakfast for his family, kissed his kids goodbye, finished a "honey-do list." Van Dyke never intended to kill McDonald, Herbert said, but the officer's training and adrenaline kicked in when he saw the armed teen.

"What happened to Laquan McDonald is a tragedy," Herbert said. "It’s a tragedy, not a murder. That’s what the evidence is going to show."

McMahon was the first to mention race Monday in a case that's sparked massive protests and prompted a federal investigation. About a dozen protesters outside chanted about the KKK and "killer cops of today." Van Dyke is white; McDonald was black.

According to McMahon, Van Dyke "didn't know a single fact about Laquan McDonald's tragic and troubled childhood. ... What he did see was a black boy ... having the audacity to ignore the police."

Herbert snapped back: "The government referred to Laquan McDonald as 'a black boy.' Obviously Jason Van Dyke is white. The government wants you to think this was a race issue because that's obviously inflammatory. Race has nothing to do with this."

Herbert said his client was over-charged: "They charged him with first-degree murder. We live in this city ... where there’s probably 750 murders per year. We know what first-degree murder is. This is not first-degree murder."

Chicago police Officer Joseph McElligott takes the stand and testifies during the trial for the shooting death of Laquan McDonald at the Leighton Criminal Court Building, Monday, Sept. 17, 2018.
(Antonio Perez/pool/Chicago Tribune)

Dashcam video was played for jurors about a half-dozen times over the course of the day.

Eight state witnesses testified Monday, including a video forensics expert from the FBI, a 911 dispatcher, and a Dunkin' Donuts employee who shared surveillance tape with police.

Officer Joseph McElligott said McDonald "seemed really out of it" the night he was killed.

McElligott and partner Thomas Gaffney were the first to respond to a 911 call about McDonald shortly before 10 p.m. Oct. 20, 2014. The duo requested a Taser and followed McDonald three blocks while awaiting backup.

Gaffney is one of three Chicago police officers facing felony charges for covering up the shooting. His case is pending.

McElligott testified that McDonald clutched a knife near his torso during their encounter. McElligott's gun was drawn, but he never fired: "We were tying to buy time to have a Taser. He didn’t make any direct movement at me. And I felt like my partner was protected for the most part."

Chicago police Officer Dora Fontaine answers questions from the witness stand during the trial of Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke for the shooting death of Laquan McDonald at the Leighton Criminal Court Building, Monday, Sept. 17, 2018.
(Antonio Perez/pool/Chicago Tribune)

Officer Dora Fontaine, who testified with use immunity, said she never saw McDonald lunge or charge at an officer. She saw the teen sway side to side with a knife.

"I hear, 'Drop the knife. Drop the knife,'" she said.

Of the five squad cars that eventually responded to the 4100 block of South Pulaski Road that evening, only two captured dashcam video. None recorded audio.

Cook County Judge Vincent Gaughan on Monday denied a defense motion to move the trial out of Cook County.

Van Dyke is charged with first-degree murder, official misconduct and aggravated battery.

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