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Former officer Jason Van Dyke may have been convicted, but his case is far from over

By Megan Crepeau, Jason Meisner and Stacy St. Clair

Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO — Chicago police Officer Jason Van Dyke has been convicted of second-degree murder and 16 counts of aggravated battery with a firearm — one for each shot he fired into 17-year-old Laquan McDonald — but the case is far from over. What kind of prison time will he have to serve? Will he appeal his conviction? What about that contempt of court issue? Here’s what to watch out for in the coming weeks:

  • Legal experts are unclear on what kind of prison time Van Dyke is facing. The officer will return to court Oct. 31 for a hearing at which both sides will begin to unravel the complicated sentencing structure in play. A second-degree murder conviction carries anywhere from probation to 20 years in prison, but the aggravated battery counts are actually more serious, carrying a mandatory sentence of six years and up to 30 years in prison for potentially each count. But experts vary wildly on how it will all play out, particularly the thorny issue of whether Judge Vincent Gaughan will impose consecutive prison terms for each aggravated battery count or fold them all together. Some predict Van Dyke could face up to 60 years in prison, while others say it’s likely much less. In an interview with the Chicago Tribune after the verdict, special prosecutor Joseph McMahon declined to say how much prison time he would seek. “Any sentence in prison is significant,” McMahon said. “I wouldn’t want to spend a day in prison. I also realize that sending an officer to prison presents other risks and safety issues.”
  • Van Dyke’s attorney has vowed to appeal the conviction to a higher court, a process that would begin after sentencing. Daniel Herbert has said in interviews that one of the reasons he filed so many pretrial motions was to preserve issues for an appeal if Van Dyke were convicted. After last week’s verdict, Herbert told reporters he was confident he has a solid case, particularly on Gaughan’s denial of the defense’s motion to move the case outside Cook County. “As I told Jason and his family, we have a lot of legal challenges ahead of us. We know we can get this even better and perhaps throw everything out,” he said.
  • The officer’s family will have to drive more than three hours to visit Van Dyke in jail. After a four-day stay in protective custody in Cook County Jail, Van Dyke was transferred Tuesday to the Rock Island County Jail, where he will be held as a high-profile detainee pending sentencing. The move was part of an arrangement Cook County has with other jails to relocate prisoners who are high-profile, dangerous or working as cooperating witnesses in other cases, according to Cara Smith, chief policy officer for Sheriff Tom Dart. After he was convicted Friday, Van Dyke underwent a routine psychological examination and was held several nights in a cell at the jail’s infirmary, according to Smith, who said the decision to transfer Van Dyke to Rock Island was based on his high-profile status, not on any threats or concern for his safety. “There were absolutely no incidents at Cook County Jail,” Smith said. “It was completely uneventful.”
  • Van Dyke is still possibly on the hook for contempt of court for granting media interviews on the eve of jury selection. Prosecutors in August asked Gaughan to hold him in contempt for speaking with the Tribune, an alleged violation of Gaughan’s gag order on key players in the case. The judge deferred a hearing on the contempt issue until after Van Dyke’s trial, only slightly raising the officer’s bail as punishment for speaking to reporters. Criminal contempt carries with it the specter of more jail time on top of whatever sentence Gaughan gives Van Dyke for the murder and aggravated battery counts. It would be surprising to some if McMahon pursued the contempt issue with Van Dyke now facing at least six years in prison.
  • Three current and former Chicago cops also face trial on charges stemming from McDonald’s shooting. Former Detective David March, ex-Officer Joseph Walsh and Officer Thomas Gaffney were charged last year with covering up what really happened the night Van Dyke shot McDonald — including filing false reports to exaggerate the threat the teen posed. They are slated for trial late next month. Walsh, who was Van Dyke’s partner the night of the shooting, made a memorable appearance as a witness in the murder trial, demonstrating for jurors how he said McDonald threatened them with a knife that night and insisting he and Van Dyke had a reasonable fear for their lives, despite what the now-infamous police dashboard camera video of the shooting showed.

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