Jurors shown animated video at officer’s murder trial

Michael Tarm
AP Legal Affairs Writer

Chicago – Lawyers for a white Chicago police officer who fatally shot a black teenager presented an animated video to jurors on Tuesday that was intended to show the officer’s perspective during the shooting and support his claim that he feared for his safety.

The video, created for the defense team, was aimed at countering graphic police dashcam video that appears to show Jason Van Dyke shooting 17-year-old Laquan McDonald 16 times as the teen holds a knife and walks away from officers in 2014. The police video was released a year after the shooting, sparking widespread protests in Chicago.

The dashcam video is the centerpiece of the state’s case against Van Dyke, but it was taken from a different angle – to the side of Van Dyke and behind McDonald. What the officer saw during the incident could be critical during his murder trial, as jurors try to determine if it was reasonable for the officer to view McDonald as a threat.

It’s unclear if Van Dyke plans to testify during the trial. His attorneys may see the animated video as a substitute for any direct testimony that would expose the 40-year-old officer to potentially blistering cross-examination by prosecutors.

The animated video, which also offers aerial and other views, was produced by California-based 3-D Forensic. The company’s CEO, Jason Fries, described to jurors how it was made. At one point, the video depicts a view as if a camera were hovering just over Van Dyke’s shoulder, pointing his handgun and shooting as an animated figure representing McDonald appears to look at the officer.

When a defense lawyer asked Fries if the animation of McDonald was “closing the distance on Van Dyke,” a prosecutor objected. The defense attorney rephrased the question, and Fries responded: “Yes, our analysis demonstrates Mr. McDonald was getting closer to Officer Van Dyke.”

Earlier Tuesday, Van Dyke’s attorneys called probation officer Dina Randazzo, who testified that McDonald had become “combative” during a juvenile hearing in August 2013. The testimony came a day after three county employees told jurors about physical altercations with McDonald.

McDonald had slashed the tires of a police car before Van Dyke arrived at the scene.

Defense attorneys have focused on McDonald’s behavior in past years and the day he was killed. Under Illinois law, defendants who claim self-defense can present evidence about the past behavior of the person they killed, even if they weren’t aware of that history when the killing occurred.

Prosecutors rested their case last week. Defense attorneys started presenting their case Monday.

On Monday, Miguel DeJsuus, who works at the Cook County Juvenile Detention Center, told jurors of an incident in which McDonald told him he was on drugs before striking him. Joseph Plaud of the Cook County’s Sheriff’s Office testified about seeing McDonald “yelling, screaming, swearing” while he was in the juvenile court lock-up a little more than a year before the shooting.

But both witnesses, along with another man who worked in the lockup, acknowledged that they never spoke to Van Dyke about McDonald before the shooting – admissions designed to tell the jury that Van Dyke knew nothing about the teen’s past when he shot him.

Another question is which – if any – other officers at the scene the defense will call to testify. Prosecutors called several last week, but others, including two charged with trying to cover up what happened to protect Van Dyke, have not testified.