CHICAGO – Police Officer Jason Van Dyke testified Tuesday in his murder trial for the on-duty shooting death of Laquan McDonald, insisting in his court testimony that he acted in self-defense in the controversial killing of the black teen.
The October 2014 shooting death of 17-year-old McDonald – captured in a chilling police video that was eventually made public – became a touchstone in the larger conversation about policing in African-American communities.
"His face had no expression, his eyes were just bugging out of his head," Van Dyke said of McDonald. "He had these huge white eyes just staring right through me.”
Police were called to Chicago’s southwest side the night of the shooting on reports of a suspect breaking into trucks and stealing radios. They found McDonald with what they say was a knife with a 3-inch retractable blade.
Police dashboard camera video of the shooting – footage the city was forced by court order to make public 400 days after the incident – appeared to show that McDonald, holding the small knife, was walking away from officers toward a chain-link fence when Van Dyke fired his service weapon. An autopsy later revealed that the teen, who had a history of mental illness, had PCP in his bloodstream.
Van Dyke, who grew emotional and stifled tears during his hour-long testimony, said McDonald raised his knife from his side to his shoulder as the teen approached him and other officers, something that police dashcam video of the incident does not show.
But Van Dyke said the angle of the video simply misses the teen raising his knife.
"The video doesn't show my perspective," Van Dyke said. He later added, "I thought the officers were under attack. The whole thing was shocking to me."
Van Dyke opened fire within six seconds of exiting his police vehicle, prosecutors told jurors. Within 1.6 seconds, McDonald was on the ground, never to get up again.
Van Dyke nevertheless continued to fire at McDonald for another 12.5 seconds — firing a total of 16 shots, prosecutors say.
Jody Gleason, the assistant state prosecutor, retorted during her questioning, “You could have ended it all the minute he hit the ground."
Van Dyke said he kept shooting because he saw McDonald continue to grasp the knife and refused his commands to let it go. The officer said he attempted to shoot at McDonald's right arm and hand, which was holding the knife.
"He started to push up with his left hand off the ground," Van Dyke said who teared up through his testimony.
Van Dyke says he and his partner, Joseph Walsh, were getting coffee when they heard a call from dispatchers that reported McDonald had slashed a tire of a police car. He said the two rushed to the scene upon hearing the call of officers in distress.
Laurence Miller, a Boca Raton, Fla.-based psychologist who evaluated Van Dyke at the behest of the officer's defense team, said Van Dyke told him during an evaluation that he heard the radio traffic about the popped tire and asked Walsh, "Why didn’t (other officers) shoot...if he was attacking them?"
When Van Dyke and Walsh initially approached McDonald in their squad car, Van Dyke said he wanted to try to knock the teen to the ground with his car door. He said Walsh told him they were too close and to close the door and stay in the car.
In his initial account to investigators following the shooting, Van Dyke said he backpedaled as McDonald approached him and other officers. Under cross-examination, Van Dyke acknowledged that wasn't the case.
"After seeing the video countless times, I know I didn’t backpedal," Van Dyke said.
Miller said in his testimony that he was confident that Van Dyke was recounting the incident as he recalled it.
"I believe Jason Van Dyke told me the truth as he perceived that truth," Miller said.
Van Dyke said he never had to shoot his weapon in his 13 years as an officer prior to the McDonald shooting, despite being involved in several incidents where a suspect was armed with a knife or gun.
“I’m very proud of that,” Van Dyke said.
Tina Hunter, McDonald's mother, left the courtroom prior to Van Dyke taking the stand, said the Rev. Marvin Hunter, the teen's great-uncle.
"I believe not one word that Jason Van Dyke said today," Rev. Hunter said.