Chicago Officer Who Killed Laquan McDonald Will Leave Prison Early

Jason Van Dyke has served three years of a nearly seven-year sentence. He was convicted of second-degree murder in the teenager’s death, which put a spotlight on police misconduct.

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CHICAGO — When Jason Van Dyke, a former Chicago police officer, was convicted in 2018 of the murder of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald, some Chicagoans saw a promise of justice: Mr. Van Dyke would serve time in prison for shooting the Black teenager 16 times, an act that was captured on a dashboard camera and widely viewed by the public.

Three years into a nearly seven-year sentence, Mr. Van Dyke, who is white, is expected to be released from custody in the coming days. Activists in Chicago have greeted the prospect of Mr. Van Dyke’s freedom with outrage and called on federal officials to file civil rights charges against him, saying his prison term has fallen far short of a fair punishment for murder.

Mr. Van Dyke’s early release was expected under Illinois rules that give credit to prisoners for good behavior. Activists had long criticized the original sentence — 81 months — as too lenient.

But the Rev. Marvin Hunter, Mr. McDonald’s great-uncle, who has acted as a family spokesman, said he did not plan to participate in a planned demonstration on Thursday or protest Mr. Van Dyke’s release.

“Justice, in our eyesight, was getting a conviction,” he said. “It wouldn’t benefit anyone in this country for Jason Van Dyke to go back to jail and get 100 years or 1,000 years.”

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The killing of Mr. McDonald in October 2014 placed a spotlight on police misconduct toward Black Chicagoans, prompted changes to the Police Department — officers now wear body cameras while on duty — and forced its superintendent out of his job. The fallout over the video, which was released to the public 13 months after the killing and only after a judge’s order, was widely seen as a factor in the decision by Rahm Emanuel, then the mayor of Chicago, not to seek a third term.

Joshua Lott for The New York Times

Mr. Emanuel, now the United States ambassador to Japan, faced questions about his handling of the case during his confirmation hearing last year.

As questions about Mr. Van Dyke’s release have grown, Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who was elected in 2019, has defended her record on policing issues while acknowledging the continuing impact of the case. At a news conference this week, she described trying to protect her daughter from seeing the video of the shooting after it was released in 2015.

“That was a very difficult and fraught time in our city,” Ms. Lightfoot said. “And I think that many people carry the trauma of that moment and others like it with them to this very day.”

In the aftermath of Mr. McDonald’s murder, before becoming mayor, Ms. Lightfoot led a panel that found a pattern of systemic racism in the Chicago Police Department. She said there had been improvements since then, including in police training and oversight, though she acknowledged that more needed to be done.

“There has been some change — not enough,” she said. “Not enough by any stretch of the imagination.”

Mr. Van Dyke, the first Chicago police officer to be convicted in an on-duty murder in almost 50 years, was found guilty of second-degree murder and 16 counts of aggravated battery with a firearm, one count for each bullet he fired. Prosecutors requested a sentence of at least 18 years in prison, but Judge Vincent Gaughan sentenced him to less than half of that.

Judge Gaughan sentenced Mr. Van Dyke only on the murder count; a penalty for the aggravated battery counts could have resulted in a much longer prison term.

William Calloway, a community organizer who in 2015 pressed for the release of the video of Mr. McDonald’s murder, described the response to the shooting and conviction as a watershed moment for Chicago.

“We finally held a police officer accountable,” Mr. Calloway said. “The justice system didn’t give him the punishment to match his crime, but a just verdict was rendered for murder, so it gave us a lot of hope to keep fighting.”

Mr. McDonald was shot after Chicago officers were summoned to the city’s Southwest Side to investigate a report of a person with a knife trying to break into vehicles in a trucking yard. Officers followed Mr. McDonald for several blocks, and at one point requested that an officer with a Taser be sent to the scene. Not long after, Mr. Van Dyke arrived on the scene and opened fire as Mr. McDonald appeared to be veering away from officers.

Mr. Calloway and other activists and family members — including Mr. McDonald’s grandmother Tracie Hunter — planned to gather on Thursday afternoon outside a federal courthouse in Chicago to reiterate demands for a federal civil rights investigation into Mr. McDonald’s death.

Senators Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth of Illinois released a letter to Attorney General Merrick B. Garland on Tuesday, asking him for an update to an investigation that the Justice Department began in 2015. A spokeswoman for the Justice Department declined to comment on the status of the investigation.

Kim Garecht, a spokeswoman for the Illinois Department of Corrections, confirmed this week that Mr. Van Dyke was in custody, but she would not provide information on the timing of his release.

“For safety and security purposes, the department cannot disclose any information regarding his current location or pending release from IDOC custody,” she said in an emailed statement.

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