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Court Upholds Chicago Officer’s 7-Year Sentence for Killing Unarmed Black Teenager Laquan McDonald

Web ExclusiveMarch 20, 2019
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The Illinois Supreme Court has let stand a less than 7-year prison sentence for former police officer Jason Van Dyke, who was found guilty last year of second-degree murder for killing African-American teenager Laquan McDonald in 2014. The court denied a request by the state’s attorney general to resentence Van Dyke on Tuesday. Van Dyke, who is white, was found guilty on 16 counts of aggravated battery—one count for each of the 16 bullets he fired at McDonald. Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul petitioned the state Supreme Court to vacate Van Dyke’s second-degree murder sentence and instead impose a sentence on each of the 16 counts. If the petition had been granted, Van Dyke could have faced up to 96 years in prison. The news that Van Dyke will not be resentenced has sparked criticism in Chicago. We speak with Flint Taylor, an attorney with People’s Law Office and author of “The Torture Machine: Racism and Police Violence in Chicago,” and Lilia Fernández, a professor of history and Latino studies at Rutgers University. She is the author of “Brown in the Windy City: Mexicans and Puerto Ricans in Postwar Chicago.”

Transcript
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, we’re continuing our discussion on a decades-long history of police brutality in Chicago. This week, the Illinois Supreme Court has let stand a less than 7-year prison sentence for former police officer Jason Van Dyke, who was found guilty last year of second-degree murder for killing African-American teenager Laquan McDonald in 2014. The Illinois Supreme Court denied a request by the state’s attorney general to resentence Van Dyke on Tuesday. Van Dyke, who is white, was found guilty on 16 counts of aggravated battery—one count for each of the 16 bullets he fired at McDonald. Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul petitioned the state Supreme Court to vacate Van Dyke’s second-degree murder sentence and instead impose a sentence on each of the 16 counts. If the petition had been granted, Van Dyke could have faced to up 96 years in prison. The news that Van Dyke will not be resentenced has sparked criticism throughout Chicago.

AMY GOODMAN: For more, we continue our discussion with two guests. Flint Taylor, attorney with People’s Law Office, author of The Torture Machine: Racism and Police Violence in Chicago, has represented survivors of police torture in Chicago for nearly half a century. Also with us, Lilia Fernández, professor of history and Latino studies at Rutgers University, author of Brown in the Windy City: Mexicans and Puerto Ricans in Postwar Chicago. She also happens to be married to our co-host, Juan González.

We welcome you both, and thank you for staying with us for Part 2 of this discussion. I want to begin with Flint Taylor on your response to the latest on Laquan McDonald. What exactly happened? What was this attempt at resentencing all about?

FLINT TAYLOR: Well, the judge, after Van Dyke was convicted, as you mentioned, for 16 counts of aggravated battery, as well as second-degree murder, went against the Illinois Supreme Court precedent and decided to sentence on the murder charge, which, surprisingly perhaps, carries a lighter potential sentence than the aggravated battery the bullets carried. And he did this, and it raised quite a bit of alarm and anger in the community, as well as with many progressive people.

So, the attorney general, who was just elected, an African-American man by the name of Kwame Raoul, took this to the Illinois Supreme Court and said that the judge acted outside of his authority, based on prior Supreme Court decisions, and that he should have sentenced under the aggravated battery convictions, and that would have made it possible to give Van Dyke a more stringent sentence, more than the four or four-and-a-half years that he ultimately gave Van Dyke.

It did, however, raise some interesting questions in the left and progressive community, particularly in the abolitionist movement, about whether to advocate for longer sentences, even if it is a police officer who is convicted. And we also—in the wake of all of this, we can’t lose the fact that this was a victory to get him convicted. It was a victory that people in the streets, for years, made happen. And without that, there wouldn’t have been an indictment. There wouldn’t have been a conviction. So, we can’t get lost, in my view and, I think, in the view of many, in the idea of how much time Van Dyke got, even though, of course, it raises the fact that officers are treated totally differently than your average African American or brown or poor white would if they were convicted of the same crime.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And I wanted to ask, first Lilia and then Flint also, if you could comment this, because, given all of these cases that have occurred in Chicago of not only abuse, but of tortured confessions and wrongful convictions, Chicago also became the birthplace—the Chicago area—of a movement to overturn these convictions. Of course, Northwestern University, famous for the student projects that were developed about the wrongly convicted, and eventually a Republican governor seeking to stop the death penalty. Could you talk about the impact of these cases on public opinion?

LILIA FERNÁNDEZ: Sure. So, as I was saying earlier, that, you know, the communities in the city were familiar, for many, many years, with repeated cases of police brutality and violence, sometimes against people who were legitimately criminal suspects, and sometimes against people who were completely innocent or who were framed for crimes that they did not commit. So, you know, the fact that beginning in the mid-'90s, I believe it was, perhaps even earlier, that some of these cases were beginning to be overturned, with the advent of DNA evidence, for example, this was in large part the result of years of protest and activism and community members trying to raise awareness about the injustice that many African Americans and Latinos were experiencing. And really, it was those cases, ones like that of Rolando Cruz and many of the African-American men who Flint Taylor also writes about in the book—it was the fact that they had been convicted—I'm sorry, given the death sentence, that advocates were trying to get those wrongful convictions overturned.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And Flint?

FLINT TAYLOR: As Lilia just referred to the Death Row 10, what happened in the ’90s was, as the torture evidence came out and we and other raised these issues in cases of post-conviction in death row cases where men had been sent to death row based on tortured confessions, that the men behind bars on death row organized. And they organized into the Death Row 10. And that Death Row 10 was a group of 10, and later 12, men who were all on death row on the basis of torture. And so, that movement, that was spearheaded by the Death Row 10 and activists on the outside and lawyers that were bringing these cases in the courts, came together with the movement against the death penalty, that was gathering so much strength, the wrongful conviction movement, that was spearheaded at Northwestern and at DePaul and other places.

And as a result of this coming together, the Republican governor, as you mentioned, Juan—Ryan—at first granted a moratorium on the death penalty, and then, as he was leaving office in 2003, he cleared death row, commuted the sentences of all 163 men and women on death row, and pardoned four of the Death Row 10 on the basis of innocence and torture. And that movement, you could see the coming together of those two strains of the movement was so significant in accomplishing that. And then, eight years later, that movement continued, to lead not only to the indictment of Burge, on the one hand, but, on the other hand, to the abolishment of the death penalty in Illinois.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I want to turn to one of the Death Row 10, Darrell Cannon. He spent more than 20 years in prison after confessing to a murder he didn’t commit, after being tortured by officers under Jon Burge’s command. Darrell Cannon appeared on Democracy Now! in 2015.

DARRELL CANNON: On November the 2nd, 1983, about 15 all-white detectives invaded my apartment, terrorized me, my common-law wife and my cat. And during that day, through—I was tortured in despicable ways, from them using an electric cattle prod to shock me on my genitals and in my mouth. They tried to hang me by my handcuffs, which was cuffed behind my back. And they tried to play a game of Russian roulette on me with a shotgun, and they ended up chipping my two front teeth and splitting my upper lip.

AMY GOODMAN: And then what happened?

DARRELL CANNON: From there, by the time they finished with me that evening, I was ready to say that my mother committed a crime, if they told me that was the case. The type of things that they did to me, I have never in my life experienced, and I’ll never in my life forget. It was something that you couldn’t even conjure up in a horror movie, because you don’t think that Chicago police officers would stoop this low in trying to obtain a confession. It didn’t matter whether or not I was guilty or innocent. In their minds, any time they pick a black man up, he’s guilty.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: That was Darrell Cannon, one of the Death Row 10. And, Flint, that was actually you in that interview at Democracy Now! sitting right next to him. Any other comments on that case?

FLINT TAYLOR: Yes. Darrell’s case is a major part of the book, because Darrell’s case—not only the torture, the fact that he was sent to Tamms, the supermax prison, for nine years and suffered another form of sensory deprivation and torture, the fact that when we got him out many, many years later, he became a leader in the reparations movement, a spokesperson for reparations for the men who, like himself, did not get proper compensation. So, Darrell, as you can tell from that clip, is a remarkable leader and someone who is very much a part of the story of The Torture Machine.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Lilia, I wanted to ask you about the broader context of what police abuse and terror has meant to the black and Latino communities of Chicago, because one of the things that’s being reported more often these days is that there’s a decline in the black population of Chicago, and that, in reality, there’s a re-engineering of our cities, and more and more of the poor are being forced out of the cities.

LILIA FERNÁNDEZ: Right. And I think this is a reason that, in the case of Latinos, there were a number of cases of police abuse in the surrounding suburbs, because beginning in the 1980s, some immigrant populations and some Latinos who had been living in the city started moving out to the suburbs, or arriving to the suburbs initially when they came to this country. And so they were experiencing misconduct, brutality in those places. But one of the things that I think is important for us to understand is the fact that a lot of this police abuse and brutality stemmed from the racial hostility of white communities that really resented the influx of so many Puerto Ricans, Mexican Americans and African Americans who were moving into formerly all-white neighborhoods in the city. And so, the police carried this out, you know, carried those prejudices out into the street, as well, when they encountered these suspects in a variety of different settings.

AMY GOODMAN: And I only can think of Martin Luther King describing when he went to challenge segregation in Chicago. Even through all he had been through in the South, the place he was most afraid was Chicago.

Lilia Fernández, we want to thank you so much for being with us, professor of history and Latino studies at Rutgers University. Your book, Brown in the Windy City: Mexicans and Puerto Ricans in Postwar Chicago. And Flint Taylor, attorney with People’s Law Office, his new book, The Torture Machine: Racism and Police Violence in Chicago.

To see Part 1 of our discussion, go to democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. Thanks so much for joining us.

The original content of this program is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Please attribute legal copies of this work to democracynow.org. Some of the work(s) that this program incorporates, however, may be separately licensed. For further information or additional permissions, contact us.

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