White Chicago cop on trial for black teen shooting death

Chicago cop Jason Van Dyke approaches the bench during his hearing. (Reuters pic)

CHICAGO: The trial of a white Chicago cop over the fatal shooting of a black teenager began Wednesday as protesters accused authorities of a “cover up” in a case that has set America’s third-largest city on edge.

Police officer Jason Van Dyke faces murder charges for shooting 17-year-old Laquan McDonald 16 times in an October 2014 confrontation.

The incident, captured on police dash-cam video, has upended the city’s politics with fears of violence if the officer is acquitted.

Outside the courthouse, dozens of protesters decried police shootings and demanded accountability, chanting: “Sixteen shots and a cover up.”

“We’re here to find out what they’re going to do. We are tired of them making excuses for people who are killing human beings,” Mary Johnson, 85, told AFP.

“The message today is that we have to quit covering up what officers are doing wrong,” added Charles Edward Perry, a 52-year-old father of six.

The police video shows Van Dyke firing bullets into the knife-wielding teen, who appeared to have been walking away from officers. The officer continues to fire after the teen collapses to the ground.

None of the other officers at the scene fired their weapons.

“I never would have fired my gun if I didn’t think my life was in jeopardy or another citizen’s life was,” Van Dyke told the Chicago Tribune in an interview last week.

McDonald’s family, in rare public comments, has urged people to remain peaceful ahead of the trial.

A contingent of around 20 relatives gathered in court for the first day of proceedings, along with many of Van Dyke’s supporters.

“Laquan McDonald was the victim and we are here because he cannot speak,” family spokesman Marvin Hunter told reporters.

“Jason Van Dyke did not give him his day in court. He acted as judge, jury and executioner.”

Judge Vincent Gaughan instructed an initial pool of 200 potential jurors, who packed the courtroom and were given questionnaires to fill out. They are due to return next week as the pool is narrowed to a jury of 12.

The judge read all 23 charges against Van Dyke. He faces six first-degree murder counts, one of official misconduct and 16 charges of aggravated battery with a firearm – one for each bullet that struck McDonald.

The police video of the shooting, which was recorded from a distance and has no audio, was initially withheld from the public for a year, until a judge compelled its release.

Van Dyke was charged on the day the footage was made public.

The resulting political fallout claimed the jobs of the city’s police chief and lead prosecutor.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel, once a star of the Democratic party, announced Tuesday he would not seek re-election, after years of unrelenting calls to resign amid accusations of an attempted cover-up.

Ja’Mal Green, a member of the “Black Lives Matter” activist movement and a mayoral candidate, told AFP Emanuel’s decision would not calm infuriated locals.

“We’re in a situation where we want a conviction,” he said, predicting that if Van Dyke were acquitted, “you’ll see thousands of people take to the streets.”

Several other police officers connected to the case face criminal charges or have been recommended for firing – all accused of making false statements or impeding the investigation into the shooting.

“It’s not surprising to (black youth) that an officer would shoot and kill a young black man,” said Chaclyn Hunt, who runs a community organisation supporting black youngsters in Chicago.

“They spend time in neighbourhoods where police operate with complete impunity.”

The trial will test the justice system’s ability to wrest a conviction in a high-profile police shooting case.

A series of such incidents around the country, publicised by smartphone and police video, have given rise to “Black Lives Matter.”

But prosecutions, let alone guilty verdicts, have proven rare.

Last week a Texas jury sentenced a white police officer to 15 years in prison for the shooting death of a black teen.

Roy Oliver fired five bullets into a car full of teens last year, killing 15-year-old Jordan Edwards.