Witnesses at officer murder trial portray teen as dangerous
CHICAGO (AP) — A Chicago police officer told jurors Wednesday at the trial of a white police officer charged with murder in the 2014 death of Laquan McDonald that officers warned years earlier about the possibility of people carrying guns disguised as knives.
Another officer testified she thought McDonald might have had a gun the night Officer Jason Van Dyke ending up killing the 17-year-old — a claim other officers never made. And a truck driver described to the jury how McDonald had come at him with a knife earlier that night, saying he threw dirt and a cellphone at the teenager to get him to back off.
The testimony came as defense attorneys sought to bolster their argument that it was reasonable for Van Dyke to have perceived McDonald as a threat before shooting him 16 times — even as the teenager, who was carrying a knife, walked away from officers on Oct. 20, 2014. McDonald did not have a gun, and prosecutors have stressed that Van Dyke was the only officer who encountered the teenager to open fire.
William Schield, a Chicago police sergeant, told jurors that in 2012, a bulletin was issued warning patrol officers about knives fashioned to shoot bullets. When a prosecutor asked whether Schield or any other officers he knew had ever come across what he referred to as a “knife-gun,” Officer Schield answered: “Not that I am aware.”
Police reports released in 2015 refer to a bulletin about a “revolver knife” that could fire .22 caliber bullets. Van Dyke did not raise that possibility in his police interview immediately after the shooting, but he did later mention the bulletin warning to investigators.
Earlier Wednesday, truck driver Rudy Barillas told jurors he saw McDonald about 30 minutes before the shooting in someone else’s truck in a parking area. When he confronted McDonald, he said the teen pulled out a knife and came toward him.
“He tried to stab me,” Barillas said, speaking through a Spanish-language interpreter. He stood and showed jurors how McDonald wielded the knife.
Barillas called 911 and said that McDonald ran after realizing police were on their way. During cross-examination, Joseph Cullen highlighted how the truck driver hadn’t needed to use deadly force.
“You were able to fend off this young man with a cellphone and a handful of rocks,” Cullen said.
Leticia Velez, the first defense witness of the day, was among the first officers to respond to the truck driver’s 911 call.
She testified that McDonald was holding his side when she saw him. That, she said she remembered thinking at the time, could mean he had a gun. She also testified that McDonald acted oddly, including by not looking at officers as they followed him — sirens blaring on their patrol cars.
“He looked deranged,” she testified.
Velez said she at one point pulled her gun out. But when a prosecutor asked if she ever fired it, she answered, “I did not.”
Only after McDonald was lying on a street, fatally wounded — and after Velez asked another officer about a weapon — did she realize a gun was not involved, Velez testified.
“We found out later he didn’t have had a gun,” she said. “But I believed he had a gun.”
When Van Dyke arrived on the scene, police had McDonald mostly surrounded and well away from other bystanders. He was walking down the middle of a street next to a chain link fence. Testimony and police dispatch recordings indicate officers were waiting for someone to show up with a Taser to use on McDonald.
The suggestion that any officers might have thought McDonald had a gun has rarely come up in the case. After the shooting, Van Dyke and other officers had said in police reports that McDonald had “aggressively” swung a knife at them and tried to get up from the ground still armed after he was shot. Police video released a year after the shooting contradicted that account.
Three officers — David March, Joseph Walsh and Thomas Gaffney — were indicted in 2017 for conspiring to cover up and lie about the circumstances of the McDonald shooting, including by falsifying reports. They pleaded not guilty.
Police attorney Yolanda Sayre testified later in the day what officers are told about when the use of deadly force is justified. In most cases, she said, its use must be “reasonable” and “necessary” to prevent death or serious injury to the officer or someone else.
Defense attorneys are scheduled to resume their presentation on Thursday.
Follow Michael Tarm on Twitter at http://twitter.com/mtarm