U.S. Attorney’s Office Provides Update on Investigation Into the Murder of Laquan McDonald

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FILE PHOTO: Signage is seen at the United States Department of Justice headquarters in Washington, D.C.

CHICAGO — On April 13, 2015, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Illinois announced a joint federal and state investigation into the Oct. 20, 2014, fatal shooting of Laquan McDonald.  On Nov. 24, 2015, the Office announced that the investigation remained active and ongoing.  The Office conducted a thorough and independent investigation with the assistance of its federal, state, and local investigative partners, including the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office, Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the Chicago Independent Police Review Authority and its successor, the Civilian Office of Police Accountability.

In November 2015, the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office, in consultation with the U.S. Attorney’s Office, proceeded with murder charges against former Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke in the Circuit Court of Cook County.  Experienced and independent prosecutors led the state prosecution, resulting in Mr. Van Dyke’s historic convictions of second-degree murder and sixteen counts of aggravated battery with a firearm.  On Jan. 18, 2019, Mr. Van Dyke was sentenced to 81-months’ imprisonment.

Today, John R. Lausch, Jr., United States Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois, announced that the U.S. Attorney’s Office will not pursue a successive prosecution of Mr. Van Dyke on federal criminal charges.  The decision not to pursue a federal prosecution is consistent with Department of Justice policy and was made in consultation with Mr. McDonald’s family.  U.S. Attorney Lausch has spoken with a representative of Mr. McDonald’s family on multiple occasions over the past three years, including recently, to discuss the factors the Department of Justice considers when deciding to bring a second prosecution.  The family was in agreement not to pursue a second prosecution, and the Office respects their position. 

While much of the evidence presented at Mr. Van Dyke’s state trial was developed through a joint federal and state investigation, a federal trial would not be a retrial of the state case.  There is no general murder charge under federal law that would apply.  Federal prosecutors would need to prove to a jury beyond a reasonable doubt that Mr. Van Dyke willfully deprived Mr. McDonald of a constitutional right.  To do that, prosecutors would have to prove not only that Mr. Van Dyke acted with the deliberate and specific intent to do something the law forbids, but also that his actions were not the result of mistake, fear, negligence, or bad judgment.  It requires federal prosecutors to prove beyond a reasonable doubt what Mr. Van Dyke was thinking when he used deadly force, and that he knew such force was excessive.  The federal law presents a very high bar – more stringent than the state charges on which Mr. Van Dyke was convicted.

Even if a federal trial resulted in a conviction, the federal judge imposing sentence would be obligated to consider the 81-month state sentence previously imposed, as well as other relevant factors, including the same aggravating and mitigating factors presented at Mr. Van Dyke’s extensive state-court sentencing hearing; the fact that Mr. Van Dyke served his state prison sentence with conduct entitling him under state law to be released early; and the fact that Mr. Van Dyke no longer is and never again will be a police officer.  Given these factors, there is a significant prospect that a second prosecution would diminish the important results already achieved. 

In addition to the conviction and imprisonment of Mr. Van Dyke, the murder sparked an extensive Department of Justice investigation of the Chicago Police Department, the results of which were largely incorporated into a federal consent decree requiring the Chicago Police Department to implement hundreds of meaningful police reform measures.

The public should not draw conclusions regarding how the Office is likely in the future to analyze incidents of alleged crimes by law enforcement officers.  The Department of Justice remains committed to investigating allegations of excessive force by law enforcement officers and will continue to devote the resources required to ensure that credible allegations of civil rights violations are thoroughly examined.