CHICAGO (CBS)-- Former Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke has been released from custody after completing his sentence for the murder of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald.
Van Dyke was released Thursday morning from the Taylorville Correctional Center, a minimum security prison in central Illinois, about 30 miles south of Springfield, according to the Illinois Department of Corrections. Neither IDOC nor the governor's office would provide further information about the terms of his release, but his sentence included two years of mandatory supervised release, the state's equivalent of parole.
Until Thursday, IDOC had not provided information about where where Van Dyke was being held in the days leading up to his release. Former Kane County State's Attorney Joe McMahon, who served as the special prosecutor who took Van Dyke to trial, said Monday that IDOC has clouded Van Dyke's release in secrecy — giving the family and the public reason to be skeptical.
In 2018, Van Dyke was convicted of second-degree murder and 16 counts of aggravated battery for fatally shooting McDonald in 2014. In early 2019, Cook County Criminal Court Judge Vincent Gaughan sentenced Van Dyke to 81 months in prison, followed by two years of supervised release. Van Dyke served about half that 81 month sentence, because he was eligible to take time off his prison term for good behavior while in custody.
Jason Van Dyke Release Documents
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CBS 2 Legal Analyst Irv Miller explained that despite being out of prison, Van Dyke remains under very tight restrictions.
"He's going to have to obey the parole officer. He can't leave the state of Illinois without their permission. He can't carry a weapon because he's a convicted felon. He has to take random drug tests if he's requested to do that. He totally gives up his Fourth Amendment rights as far as having his house and his car and his person searched at random. He's under the control of the Illinois Department of Corrections. He can't do what he wants to do," Miller said. "The only thing he can do today that he couldn't do yesterday is that he can vote now that he's out of the penitentiary."
After initially being placed in custody of IDOC following his sentence, Van Dyke later was transferred to a federal prison in Danbury, Connecticut, in February 2019, but was attacked by his fellow inmates shortly after his arrival, and was later transferred to another federal facility in Otisville, New York, and later was moved to a state prison in Maryland in November 2019. It's unclear when was transferred again, but IDOC earlier this week confirmed he was back in their custody before he was released on Thursday.
McMahon said he wished Van Dyke had been given a harsher sentence, but said it's no surprise the former officer was released when he was, since under Illinois law, a person convicted of second-degree murder is eligible to have their sentence reduced based on day-to-day credit for good behavior while in prison.
"While it's hard to reconcile the crime with the sentence, and what Mr. Van Dyke did to Laquan McDonald with the sentence, our system and the laws in Illinois required his release today," he said.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot issued a statement Thursday morning ahead of Van Dyke's release:
"I know some Chicagoans remain disheartened and angry about Jason Van Dyke's sentence for the murder of Laquan McDonald. As I said at the time, while the jury reached the correct guilty verdict, the judge's decision to sentence Van Dyke to only 81 months was and remains a supreme disappointment. I understand why this continues to feel like a miscarriage of justice, especially when many Black and brown men get sentenced to so much more prison time for having committed far lesser crimes. It's these distortions in the criminal justice system, historically, that have made it so hard to build trust," Lightfoot said. "While I know this moment is disappointing, it should not prevent us from seeing the significant progress Van Dyke's prosecution and conviction represent. He was the first officer in more than half a century to be convicted of a crime committed purportedly in the line of duty. This prosecution led to historic reforms, including comprehensive legislation that created the first-ever community police oversight body in Chicago, and a consent decree to oversee CPD reform. There is much more work to do, and it is by doing that work that we can heal from this and move forward towards justice and accountability every day."
Cara Hendrickson, executive director of BPI Chicago, a nonprofit law and policy center, said Van Dyke's release comes as the Chicago Police Department has been slow to implement reforms mandated by court-ordered consent decree.
"The release of Jason Van Dyke is really causing all of us to ask questions about justice and accountability," she said.
Hendrickson helped negotiate the consent degree when she worked with the Illinois Attorney General's office. The decree requires CPD to review use of force policies every year, to track foot pursuits, and to document every time an officer points a gun at someone.
"There's a specific section of the consent decree that relates to accountability. This issue that we're talking about right in this moment, at the last measure, the department was in compliance with 8% of the requirements in the accountability section of the consent decree," Hendrickson said.
Hendrickson said, while some progress has been made on CPD reforms since Van Dyke's conviction, much of it has happened around the department rather than by CPD.
Van Dyke's release after less than four years in prison is a disappointment for some activists and members of McDonald's family, who have called for more charges against him. The Rev. Jesse Jackson is one of the people, along with Bishop Tavis Grant and other members of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition, calling for federal civil rights charges to be brought against Van Dyke.
As CBS 2 Investigator Megan Hickey reported Thursday, the Rev. Michael Pfleger, the Rev. Jackson, Bishop Grant, and other members of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition gathered in Federal Plaza Thursday afternoon to deliver a letter to U.S. Attorney John Lausch demanding that he investigate and file federal civil rights charges against Van Dyke now that he is a free man.
The group compared the prospects for charges against Van Dyke to the federal charges filed against former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin in the George Floyd case.
Following the rally, activists led a march along downtown streets.
We know that federal investigators were leading the probe of Van Dyke in the months following the 2014 shooting that killed McDonald — even before the release the following year of the shocking dash cam video that showed the teenager walking away from police when he was fatally shot.
But the results of that federal investigation were never released, and Van Dyke was ultimately tried in state court.
Pfleger said Van Dyke was "slapped on the wrist" with his sentence in Cook County Criminal Court, and demanded to know what happened with the federal investigation.
"This is about Laquan McDonald and this is about Jason Van Dyke. But this is much bigger than both of them," Pfleger said. "Justice is on trial in America right now."
Pfleger said the "easy" sentence Van Dyke received was about race and privilege.
"If Laquan McDonald was white, and if Jason Van Dyke was Black, we wouldn't even be standing here today," he said. "There would have been no easy sentence. There would have been no coming here and getting out. Let's have a true justice. Lady Justice, take your blindfold off."
Also speaking at the rally calling for federal charges was Mark Clements, who linked the shooting that killed McDonald back to a long pattern of abuse. Clements was 16 when he said he was tortured into confessing to a crime he didn't commit by Chicago Police detectives working under disgraced Cmdr. Jon Burge.
"He destroyed this young kid's life. He took this young kid's life. Why?" Clements said of Van Dyke. "I was 16 years old, taken inside of an interrogation room, having my genitals and testicles grabbed and squeezed. So tired of telling this story where that it causes me trauma. The bottom line is the City of Chicago needs to stop playing its goddamn football games – political football games – and get this s**t right. We want justice for Laquan McDonald."
Hickey also spoke with McDonald's grandmother, Tracie Hunter late Thursday, and she said even though Van Dyke has completed his sentence, justice has not been served.
"It's just crazy how the system is. It's so messed up. It don't make no sense," Hunter said. "Instead of everybody coming together and seeing federal charges against this man, they don't have a heart, and they don't care, the way I feel about it."
Rev. Jackson also reportedly requested an in-person meeting with the U.S. Attorney, and that a spokesperson in the lobby of the Dirksen Federal Building said they would try to facilitate that.
Jeffrey Cramer, a former federal prosecutor who is now senior managing director of the Guidepost Solutions security firm, said federal charges are a possibility against Van Dyke, but it's unclear how likely federal prosecutors are to step in more than seven years after the shooting and more than three years after Van Dyke was convicted on state charges.
"You've got to remember when this happened. Usually when federal charges follow on something like this, it's that there was some sort of manifest injustice with the state case, or the prosecution, or the sentencing," Cramer said.
However, Cramer pointed out that, when Van Dyke was sentenced in January of 2019, under the Trump administration, at the Justice Department, "the civil rights division really wasn't doing much of anything. So those four years were kind of dormant."
"But now, certainly, Attorney General [Merrick] Garland could take a look at it with somewhat fresh eyes – he probably hasn't looked at it yet – and see if it's possible or probable that a civil rights violation could proceed on the federal system," Cramer said.
Because the shooting case against Van Dyke is rather straight forward, Cramer said "the essence is whether or not Van Dyke, in killing Mr. McDonald, deprived him of his civil rights; the civil right to live that we all have."
"So the prosecution itself is rather straight forward. It's whether or not the feds; they don't do this on every case. They're simply not geared up to take on every case," he added.
Given how much time has passed since Van Dyke was convicted of state charges, Cramer said it becomes increasingly unlikely he'll face federal charges.
"At some point, it becomes the case just played itself out. The sentence, initially, that was given, I think reasonable minds can say that that was on the light side. Six years and change for shooting an individual 16 times when he was already on the ground was probably light. Would 10 years have been better? Probably, I think you could say that. But at some point it does become such a long period of time from when the incident happened to now that I don't know if that makes it less likely that the feds would step in, but years have passed when they could have done it," he said.
Miller explained that legally, federal prosecutors can charge Van Dyke after Cook County prosecutors have already done so. But he also said he does not think it is likely to happen.
"I would highly doubt that the federal government would prosecute the case. It happened seven years ago. He served his time. It's more of a political question than it is a legal question."
CBS 2's Hickey spoke to Ron Safer, who was a lead trial lawyer on the case against the other officers who were charged with concealing Van Dyke's crimes. He said federal prosecutors did have the opportunity to bring a federal case alongside the state's case.
"One reasonable question is why didn't the federal government indict Van Dyke and others in a conspiracy to cover up these crimes?" said Safer, of Riley Safer Holmes & Cancila LLP. "That's something that the federal government is uniquely able to and skilled in investigating, and that didn't happen in this case - and I think that's a fair question."
So far, Lausch's office has declined to comment on this new push for federal charges.
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