Data highlights leniency of ex-officer Jason Van Dyke’s murder sentence

Judge Vincent Gaughan presides over a hearing for Jason Van Dyke at the Leighton Criminal Courts Building in Chicago.

FILE – In this Aug. 4, 2016 file pool photo, Judge Vincent Gaughan presides over a hearing for Jason Van Dyke at the Leighton Criminal Courts Building in Chicago. (Nancy Stone/Chicago Tribune, Pool, File)

Last month, former Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke walked out of Taylorville Correctional Center, some 200 miles south of Chicago, in the dead of night. He had served nearly half of the 81-month second-degree murder sentence that Cook County Judge Vincent Gaughan handed to him for the 2014 killing of teenager Laquan McDonald. The Illinois Department of Corrections released Van Dyke early because of a law granting day-for-day credit for good behavior to incarcerated people convicted of this type of felony.

Laquan Mcdonald.

McDonald’s relatives and community organizers protested Van Dyke’s release and called for the federal government to bring new civil rights charges against him, though such charges have not been filed. McDonald’s grandmother, outraged at the length of the sentence, argued that “if the table was turned, my grandson would have never saw the light of day.” Van Dyke was responding to a 911 call about a person allegedly trying to break into trucks when he encountered McDonald in October 2014. Moments after stepping out of his squad car, he shot McDonald 16 times as the teen was walking away.

The anger about Van Dyke walking out of prison — and renewed scrutiny over Gaughan’s sentencing decisions in the case — comes as the judge faces a retention election this fall. To stay on the bench, 60% of Cook County voters have to vote “yes” to give him another six-year term. Gaughan, a former public defender and Vietnam War veteran, has been a judge since 1991 and has a reputation for his strict temperament in court, according to multiple attorneys who spoke with Injustice Watch.

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However, a look back at the judge’s sentencing record in second-degree murder cases bares out the criticism that Van Dyke’s sentence was lenient. An analysis of court data by Injustice Watch shows that Gaughan’s sentence for Van Dyke was unusually light for the judge and more lenient than the average sentences that other Cook County judges have given for second-degree murder convictions.

The analysis was made possible by The Circuit, a courts data project led by Injustice Watch and the Better Government Association in partnership with civic tech consulting company DataMade.

Using data from The Circuit, Injustice Watch examined Gaughan’s sentencing decisions in second-degree murder cases between 2000 and mid-2018 and found that the judge’s average sentence for this conviction was 14 years and three months — nearly twice as long as the sentence he gave to Van Dyke.

A police vehicle dash cam video of the moments after Laquan McDonald was fatally shot is displayed for jurors as Chicago police Officer Jason Van Dyke attends his first degree murder trial for the shooting death of McDonald, at the Leighton Criminal Court Building Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2018, in Chicago. (John J. Kim/ Chicago Tribune via AP, Pool)

Within the scope of The Circuit data, Gaughan imposed sentences for second-degree murder — punishable by four to 20 years in prison — 55 times. Van Dyke’s sentence of six years and nine months wasn’t just unusually short for Gaughan, who only gave less prison time for second-degree murder in five cases covered by The Circuit. It was uncharacteristically light for all Cook County judges combined. System-wide, the average sentence length for a second-degree murder conviction is 12 years.

The office of the chief judge did not respond to a request for comment on these findings and told Injustice Watch that Gaughan does not give interviews. Van Dyke’s attorney, Dan Herbert, declined to comment, too. Joseph McMahon, the former Kane County state’s attorney who was the special prosecutor on the Van Dyke case, did not respond to a request for comment.

Injustice Watch spoke with several experts familiar with Cook County judges’ sentencing practices. Defense attorneys and former prosecutors said the data findings aligned with what they’ve seen in the courtroom.

Van Dyke’s sentence “is not a typical sentence at all — that’s a cop sentence,” said Julie Koehler, a supervisor in the homicide task force of the Cook County public defender’s office who’s been trying cases for more than 25 years. “I’ve never gotten anything single digit on a second-degree murder case.”

Laquan McDonald’s family speaks at a press conference during protests of former police officer Jason Van Dyke’s early release from prison. (Photo by Jim Vondruska/NurPhoto via AP)

Second-degree murder — known as “voluntary manslaughter” until 1987 — is a peculiar charge in Illinois. To convict a defendant, a judge or a jury must find that the person is guilty of murder but that the defendant believed, unreasonably, that their life was in danger because of the circumstances surrounding the killing. These circumstances often include fights, domestic violence incidents, or altercations in which both people are using weapons.

In Van Dyke’s case, the jury concluded that the officer unreasonably feared for his life. This led them to decide that he was guilty of second-degree murder rather than first-degree murder, which is punishable by up to life in prison. The jury also found Van Dyke guilty of 16 counts of aggravated battery — a more serious offense than second-degree murder. However, in a highly controversial decision, Gaughan did not impose sentences for those 16 counts.

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This story is part of The Circuit, a data-driven collaboration to investigate and reveal how Cook County’s courts work.

Prosecutors rarely bring second-degree murder charges when they first indict defendants. An analysis of data in The Circuit shows that out of nearly 2,100 second-degree murder cases initiated in Cook County, only 22% had the charge filed at the beginning. Koehler said she’s never personally handled a case with it as a starting charge in all her years as a defense attorney.

The office of Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx did not respond to a request for comment.

Aisha Cornelius Edwards, executive director of Cabrini Green Legal Aid, was a Cook County prosecutor between 2005 and 2013, when the office was led by Dick Devine and, later, Anita Alvarez. When initiating cases, “we were encouraged [by supervisors] to go for the highest possible charge we could get,” she said.

“Back then, the idea was that everybody’s guilty anyway: The higher the charge, the higher the bond you’re gonna get,” Edwards said. “This made it more likely the person would stay in custody, which means you were more likely to get a plea quicker.”

Most commonly, Koehler and Edwards said, second-degree murder convictions result from plea deals or the way that Van Dyke’s did — with juries or judges deciding that the evidence supports only a second-degree murder conviction.

Protesters rally outside the Dirksen Federal Courthouse demanding that Jason Van Dyke face charges for killing Laquan McDonald, Thursday, Feb. 3, 2022 in Chicago Former Chicago police Officer Jason Van Dyke left prison on Feb. 3 after serving less than half of his nearly seven-year sentence for killing Black teenager Laquan McDonald, angering community leaders who feel the white officer’s punishment didn’t fit his crime. (Tyler LaRiviere/Chicago Sun-Times via AP)

Edwards agreed that 81 months is an unusual prison term for this crime. But she argued that the real problem is that the typical defendant’s sentence is so long — not that Van Dyke’s was so short. She observed that everyone involved in the case gave it a lot of care and attention, and that Gaughan saw Van Dyke “as a human being who made a mistake.”

“But the vast majority of folks in the system, especially those that are poor, Black and brown don’t have that — where someone takes the time to look at them as a human being,” Edwards said. “So I’m not advocating for harsher sentences but for the same in-depth level of humanization to go into every single case.”