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Chicago Police Officer Charged With Murder Takes The Stand


The Chicago police officer accused of murdering Laquan McDonald testified yesterday. Jason Van Dyke is accused of shooting the 17-year-old 16 times in what he says was self-defense.


JASON VAN DYKE: He turned his torso towards me. He waived the knife from his lower right side upwards across his body towards my left shoulder.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: And when he did that, what did you do, officer?

DYKE: I shot him.

INSKEEP: Some of the testimony yesterday from Jason Van Dyke. Patrick Smith of member station WBEZ in Chicago has been following this story.

Patrick, good morning.


SMITH: OK. So I just now went back and watched this dashcam video again and again. Laquan McDonald is not doing what the police said. But he's walking along the street. He's gotten out of his vehicle. He's walking past the officers. He's a distance of about a traffic lane away from the nearest one. And then suddenly, he spins and goes down as he's shot. That's what has shocked people. But it sounds like this officer describes those very events very differently.

SMITH: Yes, he does, and on the stand insisted that that dashcam video, which seems to show the shooting very clearly, you know, Officer Van Dyke says that that does not accurately represent what happened. It doesn't show what happened from his perspective. That was - and on the stand yesterday, he talked a lot about things that he said the dashcam video can't see, like McDonald's face and his - you know, he described his huge eyes and his, you know, no expression on his face. He was looking through Van Dyke. And then he talked about that action that you heard there in the intro of McDonald turning toward him and waving a knife, forcing him to shoot. As you said, none of those things are on the dashcam video.

INSKEEP: And is this critical to his defense to try to describe his own state of mind and suggest that, whatever you believe from looking at the video, I believed I was in danger?

SMITH: It's absolutely critical to his defense. I mean, even if he wasn't an officer, acting in self-defense requires that the person who does it feels afraid for his or her life. As a police officer, the bar for conviction is even higher. You know, it has to be what a reasonable officer would have done in that moment. And so what Van Dyke, even before he testified, what he's needed to convince the jury of is that he was reasonably in fear for his life. And so he's trying to bring in all sorts of other considerations besides that dashcam video to show why he would reasonably be in fear for his life, like that look on his face or the turn that you can't see on the dashcam video.

INSKEEP: And I guess that would explain why he took the risk of taking the stand, which defendants don't have to do.

SMITH: That's right. And this is not something I expected. You know, it's something that we've been asking attorneys and court watchers through the first two weeks of trial. Do you think Van Dyke is going to take the stand? What we heard were mixed answers. We heard from a lot of attorneys who said, well, you really have to testify - cop or not - you really have to testify if you're claiming self-defense. That's what's going to bring it home from the jury. We also heard from a lot of other people who said, oh, no, that's a huge risk to subject yourself to cross-examination when there is that dashcam video.

INSKEEP: Well, how'd the cross-examination go?

SMITH: Well, when Officer Van Dyke was giving his testimony when he was questioned by his own attorney, he was very emotional. He cried when he described the shooting. When he was being cross-examined, that emotion and sadness went away. The prosecutor pushed him on the fact that his testimony was contradicted by the video and that it doesn't fit what Van Dyke said in police reports.

Van Dyke did not have good answers for that. He said he didn't remember what he said right after the shooting because he was in shock and couldn't explain discrepancies with the video. And he was combative with prosecutors. He seemed almost annoyed that he was being questioned.

INSKEEP: Did his initial report say anything about that look on the suspect's face or the turn or anything else?

SMITH: It didn't say anything about the look, but it did actually describe in great detail alleged movements by Laquan McDonald - the waving of the knife, raising the knife. And it described Officer Van Dyke backpedaling from Laquan McDonald. None of those things are on the dashcam video.

INSKEEP: Patrick Smith of member station WBEZ in Chicago is covering this trial. And his reporting, among other people's reporting, can be heard on that station's podcast called "16 Shots."

Patrick, thanks.

SMITH: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Patrick Smith is a producer for WBEZ. He produces All Things Considered and reports on politics and criminal justice. Patrick joined WBEZ as an intern in 2013 and never left.