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Why Was Jason Van Dyke Indicted on Six Counts of Murder for One Shooting?

How the math breaks down in this high-profile case

Jason Van Dyke at a courtroom hearing on December 18   Photo: Zbigniew Bzdak/Chicago Tribune

The recently released video of Laquan McDonald’s shooting left at least one thing clear: Chicago police Officer Jason Van Dyke shot McDonald 16 times, killing him. In that there is no ambiguity.

So how do you get from one shooting to the six counts of first-degree murder that a grand jury handed up last Tuesday? To find out I consulted a Chicago defense attorney who agreed to talk on background.

To start with, the grand jury indicted Van Dyke under two so-called theories of first-degree murder. One is that he intended to kill McDonald. The other is that Van Dyke did not intend to kill McDonald, but knew that, as state law puts it, “such acts create a strong probability of death.”

If a jury were to find Van Dyke guilty under one of these theories, sentencing would be the same. Intent to kill might sound worse, but both carry a range of 20 to 60 years in prison.

Next, there are three aggravating factors that carry different sentence extensions. This is where it gets a little weird, because they sound redundant.

  1. Van Dyke shot and killed McDonald “while armed with a firearm.”
  2. Van Dyke shot and killed McDonald “while armed with a firearm and … personally discharged a firearm.”
  3. Van Dyke shot and killed McDonald “while armed with a firearm and … personally discharged a firearm that proximately caused death.”

Those factors can tack on extra years to a sentence: 15, 20, and 25 years to life, respectively. Two theories times three aggravating factors equals six charges.

Six counts gives the prosecution options. They don’t have to take all six counts to trial. They could use them as incentives for a plea deal. Or they could go straight on through and see how many convictions they can get, because Van Dyke could, in theory, be convicted on all six counts. But the judge would have to sentence Van Dyke based on the most serious count: first-degree murder, with an add-on of 25 to life.


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