Breaking Down The Laquan McDonald Shooting Video

Like any serious student of armed self-defense, we watch videos of violent incidents in order to learn from both the victims and the survivors. Surveillance cameras, dash cameras and body cameras, along with the ubiquitous cell phone video, have become increasingly important tools in our quest to understand how and why violent incidents progress the way they do.

Yesterday, authorities released the dashcam video from a Chicago PD vehicle dashcam which captured the video of Laquan McDonald being shot by CPD officer Jason Van Dyke. Van Dyke was charged with first degree murder yesterday based upon the totality of the evidence arrayed against him.

Of the seven officers on-scene, only Van Dyke fired. Not only did Van Dyke fire, he emptied his gun, shooting McDonald 16 times in roughly four seconds, with at least one of the shots coming immediately after McDonald hit the ground.

When we watch videos of this type, we look for several things:

  • What was Person A doing that caused Person B to open fire?
  • Could Person B legally and morally be justified in firing bullet number “X” using a “reasonable man” standard?
  • Are there any extenuating/mitigating circumstances for the behavior of either party?

In this incident, McDonald is walking down the road towards a pair of Chicago officers with a knife in his hand, then changes his angle to walk past the officers. The closest he gets is roughly the width of a traffic lane, or about 12 feet.

Because of the angle of the dash camera framing Van Dyke’s extended gun hand against the flashing lights of a CPD vehicle, we can’t seen any muzzle flash to know precisely when he opens fire. Based on the apparent flinch from the other officer at about :31 (it’s hard to go on McDonald’s initial reaction, as he was apparently high on PCP, which inhibits pain receptors), we can reasonably conclude Van Dyke opened fire at that moment.

McDonald takes several apparent hits and does a 3/4 turn, and then drops as if tasered from an apparent central nervous system hit at :33. A puff of smoke, (possibly two) is (are) shown on the concrete beside a prostrate McDonald on the dash camera a split-second later at :34. There is no audio to help identify when Van Dyke started and stopped firing.

It’s important to note that the CPD vehicle filming the shooting is moving the entire time and is in a right turn as the shooting occurs. While Van Dyke is in-frame (his gun and any muzzle flashes obscured by the “white-out” of the squad car lights behind him) as he opens fire, he is completely out of frame by the :33.

There are what appear to be a few shallow, foggy breaths from McDonald, then nothing.

The other officer with Van Dyke steps forward at :52 to kick the knife away McDonald’s apparently lifeless body.

McDonald showed no signs of self-controlled movement after the apparent central nervous system hit at the :33 second mark, and no signs of life after the few apparent shallow breaths we may have seen before the knife was kicked away.

Like so many shootings captured on video, I suspect many people are going to view this one through the lens of their own personal biases. It’s amazing to see that even with incidents captured on video, people can draw radically different conclusions on what they’ve seen.

I try to watch these videos from as clinical a position as I can manage.

In this video, I was attempting to find something in McDonald’s behavior that might have suggested to Van Dyke that McDonald was a lethal force threat justifying his decision to open fire.

In particular, I watched McDonald’s hands to see if he might be raising them in a threatening manner, and his hips and shoulders to see if there was any evidence that he might be turning towards the officers in a manner that might have been viewed as the beginning of a charge or “lunge” as was originally claimed.

At :31—approximately the time Van Dyke opens fire—McDonald alters his direction very slightly, so that instead of walking at an angle towards the curb, his direction of travel would be straight down the white lane markers.

Other than that slight direction change, however, there is nothing in McDonald’s behavior that I could see that suggested he was about to “lunge” as officers originally reported. His hips did not lower or change direction as they would if he was about to spring (Shakira was correct; the “hips don’t lie”), nor did he alter the movement if his hands or turn his shoulders towards Van Dyke.

This was not a justified shooting.

That clearly, stated, I do think it’s going to be difficult, if not impossible, to get the first degree murder charge on Van Dyke to stick.

According to FindLaw:

First degree murder is the most serious of the homicide crimes in Illinois. In order to prove that the defendant committed first degree murder, the prosecutor must show beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant killed an individual without lawful justification and either:

  • Intended to kill or do great bodily harm to that individual (or knew that the act would do so); or
  • Knows that the acts create a strong probability of causing death or great bodily harm to the individual; or
  • The defendant was attempting or committed a forcible felony other than second degree murder (i.e. rape).

Now look at the second degree murder requirements.

Under Illinois second degree murder laws, in order to get a conviction for the offense, the prosecutor must show beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant killed an individual without lawful justification and either:

  • Intended to kill or do great bodily harm to that individual (or knew that the act would do so); or
  • Knows that the acts create a strong probability of causing death or great bodily harm to the individual.

If the prosecutor is able to prove either of the above two circumstances, it is the defendant’s duty to prove either of the following mitigating circumstances for second degree murder (if he cannot, he can be convicted of first degree murder instead):

  • At the time of the killing, he/she was acting under a sudden and intense passion due to being seriously provoked by either the victim or another person whom the defendant tried to kill but negligently ended up killing the victim instead; or
  • At the time of the killing, he/she believed that the killing would have been lawfully justified but the belief was unreasonable.

Van Dyke’s lawyer is likely to make the argument that McDonald was armed and refusing to obey police commands, so that Van Dyke thought he was legally justified in shooting McDonald, but that he was wrong.

A conviction for second degree murder is therefore much more likely.