Illinois Supreme Court Upholds Van Dyke Sentencing | WBEZ
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Illinois Supreme Court Upholds Jason Van Dyke Sentencing

Updated at 2:30 p.m.

The Illinois Supreme Court is turning down an unusual request for an order that would have thrown out former Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke’s sentence for his conviction in teenager Laquan McDonald’s killing. That sentence allows his prison release in less than three years.

“Obviously we're relieved,” Jennifer Blagg, an attorney for Van Dyke, said Tuesday. “We thought the sentence … was just, fair and in accordance with the jury's verdict.”

The seven-member court issued its order on Tuesday without comment from the majority.

The order was released with a six-page dissent by Justice P. Scott Neville Jr. and a one-page partial dissent by Justice Thomas L. Kilbride. The order noted, without explanation, that Justice Mary Jane Theis took no part in the decision.

The ruling comes in response to Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul and special prosecutor Joseph McMahon, who challenged the sentence in a petition last month.

Van Dyke was convicted of second-degree murder and 16 counts of aggravated battery with a firearm for shooting McDonald.

Cook County Judge Vincent Gaughan sentenced Van Dyke in January to 81 months in prison with the possibility of release in half that time, a penalty that many police accountability advocates condemned as too lenient.

The Federal Bureau of Prisons, which took custody of Van Dyke last month, lists his release date as Feb. 8, 2022.

Raoul and McMahon, the Kane County State’s Attorney, argued in their petition that Gaughan erred by basing the sentence on the second-degree murder conviction instead of the aggravated battery convictions, which carry stiffer penalties. Their petition also argued for separate sentences on each of those counts, which would have required a much longer prison term.

Gaughan, who did not file an objection to the Raoul and McMahon petition, said during the sentencing that it was “common sense” that second-degree murder was more serious than the battery counts.

Van Dyke’s attorneys, in an objection to the Supreme Court petition, argued that the attorney general and special prosecutor had no right to challenge the sentence and that Gaughan’s approach was consistent with Illinois law.

In his dissent, Neville, the high court’s sole African American, wrote, “This dispute clearly involves a matter of the utmost importance to the administration of justice.”

“Allowing a sentence to stand, where it has been challenged as contrary to Supreme Court precedent and contrary to statutory sentencing guidelines, ‘would lead to public contempt for, and ridicule of, our court system,’ ” Neville warned, quoting a 1993 ruling by the court.

Kilbride’s partial dissent says Gaughan’s sentencing was “clearly improper as a matter of law” but says the court should order a sentencing redo through a “supervisory order” — not the “writ of mandamus or prohibition” that Raoul and McMahon requested.

Raoul and McMahon did not immediately comment on the Supreme Court’s denial of their petition.

Locke Bowman, a civil-rights attorney who led the push for a special prosecutor in the case, called the ruling “disconcerting.”

“The court has apparently decided that the very harsh sentences that are typically, routinely imposed on black and brown defendants around the state of Illinois, particularly in Cook County, don’t necessarily need to be imposed on a white police officer when he is convicted of similar conduct,” Bowman said.

McDonald, 17, was carrying a knife and walking away from officers the night of Oct. 20, 2014, when Van Dyke shot him. A police dashcam video contradicted reports by officers that the teenager was attacking Van Dyke.

Protests led to a yearlong U.S. Department of Justice investigation that found widespread constitutional abuses by the Chicago Police Department and a lack of accountability for the misconduct. That probe led to a reform agreement, known as a consent decree, that will be enforced by a federal judge.

Three police officers were criminally charged with covering up for Van Dyke. In January, Cook County Judge Domenica Stephenson found them not guilty.

Next month, the Chicago Police Board has scheduled a trial-like hearing on recommendations to fire four other officers for allegedly lying about the shooting.

Van Dyke was transferred on Feb. 5 from Illinois custody to a low-security federal facility in Danbury, Conn., according to his attorneys.

Two days later, he suffered “an assault resulting in minor injuries,” according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

Van Dyke’s lawyers said the assault was a beating in his cell at the hands of other inmates.

Since then, he has been transferred to Otisville Federal Correctional Institution, a minimum- to medium-security facility about 90 minutes northwest of New York City.

Van Dyke’s lawyers had warned that, although the imprisoned former officer was not planning to ask for a new trial, he might reconsider if the sentencing were thrown out and he faced a much longer prison term.

That did not happen.

Dan Herbert, the former officer’s lead attorney, said in a written statement he hopes Tuesday’s decision “will strike a fatal blow to the political exploitation of the death of Laquan McDonald.”

“Our judicial system may not be perfect,” Herbert said. “However the bedrock of the system maintains that all defendants, including unpopular ones, are entitled to fair and impartial treatment. Jason Van Dyke is prepared to serve his debt to society and move on with his life in a meaningful and productive manner.”

Chip Mitchell reports out of WBEZ’s West Side studio about policing. Follow him at @ChipMitchell1.

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