Supreme Court Rejects Challenge to Jason Van Dyke’s Prison Sentence
Video: Amanda Vinicky reports on the high court’s decision to uphold Jason Van Dyke’s prison sentence.
The highest court in Illinois has rejected a petition filed by special prosecutors and state Attorney General Kwame Raoul that sought to contest the nearly seven-year prison sentence handed down to former Chicago police Officer Jason Van Dyke for the 2014 murder of Laquan McDonald.
The Illinois Supreme Court on Tuesday denied a mandamus petition sought by Raoul and special prosecutor Joseph McMahon, who said Van Dyke received an “improper sentence” following his conviction in the high-profile murder case last year.
Six of the seven Supreme Court justices heard the case. Justice Mary Jane Theis did not take part. Justice Thomas Kilbride concurred in part and dissented in part, while Justice P. Scott Neville Jr. dissented in full. All others concurred with the ruling, though no explanation of that decision was included.
The court’s decision comes just over a month after McMahon and Raoul first filed their petition – an extremely rare move for prosecutors to take once a case is essentially finished.
In a statement, McMahon said, “Neither the Supreme Court’s decision today, nor the sentence determined by Judge Gaughan rescinds the felony convictions or undermines the jury’s verdict, or makes me any less proud of my team’s exemplary work the last 2.5 years. I respect the justices’ ruling.”
Van Dyke shot the 17-year-old McDonald 16 times in the middle of South Pulaski Road on Oct. 20, 2014. Police had learned McDonald was carrying a knife and had attacked a truck driver only minutes earlier. Prosecutors said at trial 14 to 15 seconds passed between Van Dyke’s first and last shots. McDonald was on the ground for 13 of those seconds.
Van Dyke was given an 81-month sentence on Jan. 18 – more than three months after he was convicted on charges of second-degree murder and 16 counts of aggravated battery with a firearm. Despite the fact that aggravated battery is classified as a more serious Class X felony in Illinois, Cook County Judge Vincent Gaughan concluded that in this case, those batteries aren’t more serious than the second-degree murder.
Gaughan also ruled the convictions all stemmed from one act and entered a single sentence based on what he believed to be the more serious charge.
McMahon had recommended a sentence of 18 to 20 years for the former officer based on his belief that aggravated battery was, in fact, the more serious charge.
His appellate lawyers, Jennifer Blagg and Darren O’Brien, agreed with Gaughan’s decision. Blagg on Tuesday said she was pleased with the Supreme Court’s ruling, noting five of the six justices who heard the case rejected the prosecution’s argument.
“We believe the (Illinois) Supreme Court’s denial of writ of mandamus amounts to an implicit acknowledgment that Jason’s sentence on second degree murder was correct and supported by the law,” Blagg wrote in an email to WTTW News.
After Van Dyke was sentenced, McMahon said he was “satisfied” with Gaughan’s decision.
But within days, his team began speaking with Raoul and reviewing a possible challenge. In an appearance last month on “Chicago Tonight,” McMahon said that the “passage of time” had allowed him to “look at what the options are.” A week later, McMahon and Raoul stood before media in the Thompson Center and announced they had filed their petition.
The petition didn’t directly challenge the length of Van Dyke’s existing sentence, but instead argues that Gaughan’s decision is inconsistent with state law. They claim Gaughan should have entered a sentence on each one of the 16 aggravated battery counts, following the prosecution’s argument that each shot Van Dyke fired represents a separate crime.
In his partial dissent, Justice Kilbride wrote that he believes Gaughan’s ruling was “improper as a matter of law.” However, he did not find mandamus to be a proper remedy and instead called for the court to issue a supervisory order directing Gaughan to vacate his previous judgment and resentence Van Dyke “in accordance with the applicable sentencing law.”
Raoul noted the Supreme Court’s partial and full dissentions recognized his argument that Van Dyke’s sentence didn’t fit with state guidelines. But he believes the lack of an explanation may leave people wondering exactly what state law holds.
“The majority’s denial, without explanation, does not confirm whether Judge Gaughan’s sentence is consistent with Illinois law,” he said in a press conference Tuesday afternoon. “Nonetheless, we recognize and respect the Supreme Court’s authority.”
Blagg and O’Brien argued Gaughan’s ruling does jibe with state sentencing precedents. They’ve decried the state’s petition as a political move made to save face following a lighter-than-expected sentence for their client.
Van Dyke’s lead trial attorney Daniel Herbert said in a statement he was “extremely pleased” with Tuesday’s ruling, which he hopes will “strike a fatal blow to the political exploitation” of McDonald’s death.
“There are unpopular sentences that are handed down every single day in our criminal courts system and we don’t seek to challenge those through a very unique measure such as (this),” he told WTTW News. “This case was different, we all know that. I think there was certainly political pressure to go forward and thankfully the Illinois Supreme Court took politics out of this case in their decision.”
Herbert spoke Tuesday with Van Dyke’s wife, Tiffany, who was happy with the court’s ruling.
“She had the same concerns that we had, she’s just relieved,” Herbert said. “She wants this case over and I think probably everyone wants to move on from this case.”
Van Dyke filed a notice of his intent to appeal his convictions, but he only did so in response to the mandamus request and the possibility of a longer sentence.
Blagg said the court’s decision Tuesday will “likely” affect Van Dyke’s decision to proceed on that front, but added she would have to speak with her client before any decision is made. Herbert believes an appeal could still happen.
Van Dyke was recently moved from a Connecticut prison to a medium-security federal prison about two hours north of New York City. Under his current sentence, he has a scheduled release date of Feb. 8, 2022, according to federal records.