While we see it with far more frequency, it’s still not often that a cop goes on trial for an officer-involved shooting, and rarer still for that officer to receive a murder charge.
In the cases when it does happen—particularly if the victim is black—the playbook for the defense is simple: put the victim on trial.
That playbook was put into action on Monday, the opening day of the Chicago police Officer Jason Van Dyke’s trial. Van Dyke, who shot 17-year-old Laquan McDonald 16 times as the teen was walking away from police officers, says his use of force was justified because he feared for his life and the lives of the other officers on the scene.
Van Dyke’s defense hinges on making a Cook County jury—comprising only one black person—share that fear, despite the fact that other officers on the scene didn’t share it. All to place the blame for Laquan’s death squarely on the Chicago teen’s own shoulders. As the Chicago Tribune reports, Van Dyke’s attorney, Daniel Herbert, told the court during his opening statement, “the story in this case is a story written, directed and orchestrated by one person: Laquan McDonald.”
He went on to say that Laquan was on a “wild rampage through the city,” telling jurors that the prosecution wanted them to “look at the final chapter without reading the rest of the book.”
This was the defense’s example of a “wild rampage,” according to the Tribune:
A woman who called 911 to report McDonald–who was later determined to be on PCP–had asked to borrow her car in the middle of the previous night. Herbert also told the jury that McDonald had been using a disabled retired veteran’s public transit card throughout the city.
Laquan asked to borrow a car in the middle of the night. Laquan used a metro card that wasn’t his. Laquan McDonald held a small folding knife. This is all it takes to classify a black teen as “wild,” and to paint him as the architect of his own murder.
The one thing Laquan can’t be called, by the judge’s own ruling, is a “victim” (though Cook County Judge Vincent Gaughan decided that it could be permissible in closing arguments).
“Certainly, there is a person that’s dead as a result of this tragic situation but that doesn’t mean that the person is a victim legally,” Judge Gaughan said in August.
What a reliable playbook it is.