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Decision looms for Chicago officer: to testify or not

Chicago police Officer Jason Van Dijk listens during his first degree murder trial for the shooting death of Laquan McDonald, at the Leighton Criminal Court Building, Thursday, Sept. 27, 2018 in Chicago. (Antonio Perez/ Chicago Tribune via AP, Pool)

CHICAGO – Answering the question of what white Chicago police officer Jason Van Dijk was thinking when he shot black teen Laquan McDonald 16 times will be crucial for the judges once they begin to consult of a verdict in the murder trial. And there is only one person who knows what the officer was thinking: the officer himself.

As the trial enters its third week on Monday a decision on whether Officer Jason Van Dijk will testify looms. The judge may ask questions of the 40-year-old Van Dijk in the coming week for a final answer.

Lawyers for clients who are not up to the police usually advise against testifying, because he sets them up to potentially devastating cross-examination. But it is not clear whether the correct legal strategy for the officers, such as Van Dijk, is to stay off the witness stand.

If he testifies, Van Dijk’s biggest challenge will be to counter the evidence in the heart of the matter: dashcam video of van Dijk shooting at McDonald’s night on Oct. 20, 2014, as a 17-year-old seems to walk away from police while holding a knife. Van Dijk continues to fire shot after shot for at least 10 seconds after the teenager are you doing on the ground.

“But I think that he has to get up there and testify,” said Phil Turner, a federal prosecutor-turned-Chicago attorney who does not work on Van Dijk. “I think this is an improvement of his chances of an acquittal increase dramatically.”

Others say that the potential benefits of witnesses do not outweigh the disadvantages.

“It’s always a crapshoot to a defendant on the stand. In this case, I wouldn’t do it,” Joseph Lopez, another Chicago criminal lawyer not connected with the case.

In a number of similar studies elsewhere in the united states in recent years, officials have testified. Some that did were acquitted or the jury could not reach a unanimous verdict.

Laws a higher bar for conviction of officers in on-duty shootings, the recognition of their jobs require them to rotate to danger and make split-second decisions. A fatal shooting may be legal if the officers genuinely believed their life is in danger — even if, in hindsight, they were wrong.

“Van Dijk has to say (jurors), ‘Look, I went that day to do my work. I was not going there to shoot a guy,'” Turner said.

The prosecutors hope Van Dijk does testify, convinced that they’ll be able to destroy his credibility during the cross-examination. They could question him about the police report accounts that he and other officers, provided that shortly after the shooting, that describe McDonald lunging at Van Dyke with a knife and then try to get back on the street, being struck by the first few pictures — something that the video does not show.

Three other officers are accused with conspiring with Van Dijk in the cover up and lying about the circumstances of the shooting in an attempt to get the shield Of the Dike of the prosecution. They pleaded not guilty.

With Van Dijk on the podium, the public prosecutor will almost certainly be the dashcam video in the attack, going through all the 16 images frame by frame to ask Van Dyke what he thought about as he fired each shot.

Defense attorneys may already have paved the way for Van Dijk’s testimony. They called several witnesses who described McDonald as aggressive on different occasions, when he was held as a minor.

A witness, truck driver Rudy Barillas, described how McDonald came at him with a knife less than 30 minutes before the shooting. It was Barillas’ 911 call about McDonald allegedly breaking into vehicles that have led to the reaction of the police.

Van Dijk only learned about McDonald’s run-in with the driver of the truck after the shooting. And he knew nothing about McDonald’s earlier run-ins with law enforcement.

“But he could say, ‘Yes, I did not know the history at the time. But that history is in accord with how I saw him as a threat,'” Turner said.

The prosecutors will also likely ask Van Dyke to explain why only he, from all the officers on the scene, saw fit to start the recording.

His lawyers may believe they are this question has already been answered by an animated video that they presented that purports to show the shooting of van Dijk’s perspective. In the McDonald actually seems closer to Van Dijk as the officer fires.

The defense may conclude that the video and other witness statements already reached what a testimony by Van Dijk on purpose would do: he had a well-founded fear of McDonald.

If he does testify, legal experts say, Van Dyke would need to stay calm under the questioning by the prosecutors. If he was angry or rattled, judges may conclude that proves he is hot-headed and can shoot someone without good reason.

“He should remain humble, but also explain his reaction that night with real emotion,” said Chicago-area lawyer, Gal Pissetzky, who also think Van Dijk should testify. “He will have to give the performance of his life.”

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Follow Michael Tarm on Twitter http://twitter.com/mtarm

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