Van Dyke Trial: When a jury “has to” convict

Editor’s Note: After the original posting, Van Dyke was convicted of second-degree murder in shooting of Laquan McDonald. The jury also convicted Van Dyke of all 16 counts of aggravated battery — one for every shot he fired at Laquan McDonald, and acquitted Van Dyke of only one count – official misconduct.

The jury in the Van Dyke case is now deliberating. As you may recall, Van Dyke is the Chicago police officer who shot Laquan McDonald and who was caught on video doing so. From the video, if you can stomach it, you’ll see that Mr. McDonald was walking by police and doing nothing obvious at all to warrant shooting.

When these things happen, I’m normally the guy who thinks, “well, videos don’t tell everything and we shouldn’t rush to conclusions based on that.” And to be clear, I haven’t paid much attention to the trial beyond knowing it is happening. But I’ve actually watched the portion of the video and it’s hard for me to gainsay what I saw. I believe the officer is guilty of murder. Because I believe that, I also believe the jury should convict.

But unfortunately, that’s not the only reason I want the jury to convict. I have selfish, or at least self-interested, reasons. I’m afraid of what will happen to this city if Mr. Van Dyke is acquitted, and I’m afraid I or someone I care about will be caught in the crossfire of any riot or “uprising,” to use a term some of my leftist friends use to describe such things. I live about a mile from one of the neighborhoods in which huge riots erupted after Martin Luther King was assassinated, and while that neighborhood is (finally) on the way to recovery, it’s still a very rough part of town.

Intellectually, I realize my fear is exaggerated, callous, and based on questionable premises. It’s exaggerated because my own neighborhood, however close it is to other areas, would probably not directly suffer much. It’s callous because it reflects a “protect me and mine” attitude without considering the very real probability that any riot will be disproportionately likely to hurt people who are less well off and more marginalized than I am. The questionable premises on which my fear is based include the belief that a riot would be inevitable if the officer is acquitted, the notion that riots simply “erupt” out of some collective anger, and the related notion that “those people” are simply inclined to riot. I’ve read enough about U.S. history and about riots to know and believe things are more complicated than that, and I’m introspective enough to recognize the fact that by choosing to indulge my fear I’m also making a racist choice.

(I’ll also note, but only in passing, the very real frustrations about police brutality and targeting of poor persons and non-white persons. I disagree with some of my friends’ decision to call riots “uprisings,” with the favorable connotations that term can imply, but I must acknowledge their point that riots are never simply “riots,” that they exist in a political and historical context, and that there is often a very strong case to be made against features of the system in which riots happen.)

At any rate, fearing a riot is the wrong reason to convict a person, or to hope for their conviction. As I said, I believe Mr. Van Dyke is probably guilty, based on the facts as I understand them. Believing in guilt based on the evidence and thereby hoping for a guilty verdict are in themselves not wrong. However, hoping for a conviction because a conviction will spare me an (as yet only theoretical) inconvenience or harm is wrong. And yet I make that choice.

Photo credit: “Scales of Justice,” by DonkeyHotey. Creative commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

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Gabriel Conroy [pseudonym] is an ex-graduate student. He is happily married with no children and has about a million nieces and nephews. The views expressed by Gabriel are his alone and do not necessarily reflect those of his spouse or employer. ...more →

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18 thoughts on “Van Dyke Trial: When a jury “has to” convict

  1. Given not only Van Dyke’s actions, but the subsequent and ongoing attempt to cover up what he had done, an effort that included repeatedly destroying evidence, sustained public outrage would not only be justified but necessary. And all of the folks who would excuse what Van Dyke did would be doing so only because of explicit racial animus. There is no other explanation for how anybody could look at the mountain of available evidence and conclude, “This was an okay thing to have happened.”

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      • To elaborate, yes, I believed he was/is guilty. I wanted the jury to convict for that reason. But I also wanted it to convict for what I think are bad, or at least morally ambiguous reasons. Given that I haven’t paid nearly as much attention to this case as I would need to in order to convict someone, I’ll state it’s irresponsible for me to hope for a conviction.

        That doesn’t mean the conviction was wrong. It means I was hoping someone would be convicted regardless of whether it was right or wrong.

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        • I guess I need to elaborate on one more point. I do differ see it differently from the way Sam does on the following:

          And all of the folks who would excuse what Van Dyke did would be doing so only because of explicit racial animus.

          I don’t think that’s necessarily true. I think it’s presumptively true, but not necessarily true. We all have way of arriving at conclusions contrary to what others believe is the only reasonable conclusion to draw. And while I believe that some motivations, like racial animus, are the kind that creep up on us, or lurk in the background without our fully knowing or acknowledging it (when such reluctance to acknowledge is in itself part of the animus), I don’t think it’s a slam dunk case for the claim that excusing Mr. Van Dyke’s actions is indisputably a result of racial animus.

          But it is presumptively so. The burden, I believe, is on the excuser to demonstrate they’re not doing it out of racial animus.

          And as I tried to argue in my post, one can hope for a conviction from assumptions that, at base, also reflect a certain racial animus.

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  2. Personally, I think the guy is guilty. My expectation, however, is at best a hung jury and a DA who declines to refile.

    I have lost faith that DAs who file charges against cops actually want that conviction. I believe that they are ‘careless’ during jury selection, and do not try to craft a good ‘story’ for the jury to hear to let them convict the officer. In short, I don’t think they are ‘in it to win it’ when it comes to convicting cops.

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  3. Guility of second degree and 16 counts of aggravated battery with a firearm- meaning they met all the elements of first degree, plus a mitigating factor. I wonder what the mitigating factor was for them. It could have been the knife, the tense situation, who knows. This was not a bad verdict, though I think a first degree would not have been inappropriate.

    Not guilty of official misconduct…. that’s a head scratcher.

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