A “monster,” not a “boy scout”: How defense attorneys characterized Laquan McDonald during the Jason Van Dyke murder trial

By Javanna Plummer

“Think about a monster movie,” said defense attorney Daniel Herbert, before referring to Laquan McDonald, the Black teenager who was shot 16 times by Officer Jason Van Dyke on October 20, 2014, as a “monster.”

Herbert made these remarks during closing arguments in the murder trial of Van Dyke, who was charged with two counts of first degree murder, 16 counts of aggravated battery, and one count of police misconduct.

On Friday, October 5, a jury convicted Van Dyke of second degree murder and all 16 counts of aggravated battery. However, Herbert and Illinois Fraternal Order of Police president Kevin Graham publicly denounced this verdict in separate press conferences.

“Surgeons make far more mistakes than police officers,” said Graham, noting that the FOP will be seeking an appeal and pushing to move the trial outside of Cook County.

Herbert stated, “We don’t believe that the evidence supported the conviction, but at the end of the day with the Cook County jury and with the pressure that we had in this case, we started this case 50 yards behind the starting line.”

In the press conference, Herbert said that Van Dyke was coming into a boxing ring “with his hands tied behind his back.”

In his arguments, Herbert referred to his client as a victim while painting McDonald as a villain, and an “out of control individual who did not care about anyone.” At the onset of the trial, Herbert talked about McDonald’s “wild rampage” and called McDonald a “man,” although McDonald was 17 years old when he died.

On Herbert’s website, a page about the trial is titled “The Murder Trial of Laquan McDonald,” despite the fact that McDonald is not on trial, a point the prosecution emphasized to jurors in both opening statements and closing arguments.

In his closing arguments, Herbert said that this killing would not be justified if McDonald was a “kid in a Boy Scout uniform.” This prompted Joseph McMahon, the lead special prosecutor, to ask what differentiated McDonald from a Boy Scout.

Although Herbert insisted that “race had nothing to do with this [case],” his language was suggestive, and he was not the only one to characterize McDonald in a specific way.

In Jason Van Dyke’s own testimony, he repeatedly referred to McDonald as a “male Black,” which stripped McDonald of human qualities, Chicago activist Matthew Ross said in an interview.

Van Dyke also described McDonald as a “full grown man,” according to testimony from Dr. Laurence Miller, a defense witness who interviewed Van Dyke in 2016.

Van Dyke’s and his attorney’s language played on stereotypes of hyper-aggression, criminality, and assumption of maturity, especially regarding Black children involved in the criminal justice system. To this last point, McDonald had multiple run-ins with the law, and Herbert homed in on this troubled past.

Laquan McDonald’s uncle, Rev. Marvin Hunter, and other family members outside the courthouse. Photo: Javanna Plummer

Herbert argued that focusing only on the night of the incident was a prosecution strategy to only show the final scene of a two-hour movie, relating back to his running metaphor that this incident was a “horror movie,” as he referred to it several times.

If the film were rewound, Herbert said, the jury would also see the scene with truck driver Rudy Barillas, the man who called the police on McDonald. Yet, while Barillas testified that he was fearful of McDonald, he also said that Van Dyke fired “too many shots,” after the prosecutors asked him about the video.

To protect himself, Barillas said he threw rocks and a cellphone at McDonald, prompting McDonald to scramble; this was a point the prosecution emphasized in closing.

Kane County Prosecutor Jody Gleason asked, rhetorically: If McDonald was the “armed and dangerous criminal” Herbert had characterized him as, how was a citizen without police training able to fend McDonald off in a way that a trained police officer could not?

Jason Van Dyke’s legal team (from left) Tammy Wendt, Daniel Herbert, and Randy Rueckert, at a press conference following the Oct. 5 verdict. Photo: Javanna Plummer

Joseph Cullen, another Kane County prosecutor, added that Van Dyke had additional protections, including two firearms (his and Walsh’s), a squad SUV, and a “bevy” of other officers immediately around him.

Cullen brought this out during cross examination of Barry Vance Brodd, the defense’s expert witness. Brodd assisted Jason Fries, another expert witness, in creating an animation of the shooting from Van Dyke’s perspective.

This animation, the defense argued, would show that Van Dyke acted lawfully. Yet, in his testimony, Van Dyke undermined this evidence by saying that it was still not his perspective.

As Gleason cross examined him, Van Dyke was noticeably combative. After the verdict, the lone Black juror noted that Van Dyke’s testimony did impact the jury’s decision to convict him.

Van Dyke is now in custody, and Judge Vincent Gaughn has revoked his bail. Van Dyke’s sentencing hearing will be held October 31.

 

Featured photo: Jason Van Dyke (left), leaving the Cook County Criminal Court building at 26th and California on Tuesday, Oct. 2. Photo: Javanna Plummer