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Jury Selection Continues In Chicago For Laquan McDonald Murder Trial

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

In Chicago this week, jury selection continues in the murder trial of police officer Jason Van Dyke. Dashcam video of the 2014 shooting of black teenager Laquan McDonald sparked huge protest, forced firings and resignations. It also prompted a federal investigation. From member station WBEZ, Patrick Smith reports on how prosecutors will allege that the Chicago Police worked together to hide the truth.

PATRICK SMITH, BYLINE: In October of 2014, Jason Van Dyke, a white Chicago police officer, shot Laquan McDonald, a black teenager, 16 times. The shooting exposed some dark truths about this city, including what many say is a history of covering up police shootings. This shooting also helped define the legacy of Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who the day before jury selection began announced he was not running for re-election. But on that October night four years ago, Laquan McDonald's death seemed like just another police shooting in a city that averaged almost one per week.

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UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER #1: 51-42 on 42nd and Pulaski.

SMITH: You can hear the routine in the minutes after the gunfire when an officer corrects a dispatcher asking about McDonald.

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UNIDENTIFIED DISPATCHER: When you can, I'm - I need to get some info on the victim's condition, whatever you can, when you can. OK?

UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER #2: Offender.

UNIDENTIFIED DISPATCHER: That's what I meant.

SMITH: It's agreed. The person shot is the offender, not the victim. Now, in the seven years leading up to McDonald's death, Chicago officers had shot nearly 400 people, and the city had not found a single one of these shootings to be unjustified. The city had become efficient at moving past these incidents. So when Van Dyke shot McDonald, the officers on the scene likely had little reason to think there would be repercussions. Prosecutors say it appears they came together behind a story about the shooting. A man named Pat Camden arrived to tell it to the public.

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PAT CAMDEN: The officers are responding to somebody with a knife in a crazed condition who stabs out tires on a vehicle and tires on a squad car. You obviously aren't going to sit down and have a cup of coffee with him.

SMITH: Camden is not a public official. He's with the union that represents cops when they face discipline. That night, he tells Chicago's ABC 7 that McDonald was coming at officers with a knife.

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CAMDEN: He is a very serious threat to the officers, and he leaves them no choice at that point but to defend themselves.

SMITH: Officers on the scene put that version down on paper. And normally in Chicago, that's where the story ends. But this time, there was a video. And it's sure to be a key part of the murder trial.

The reports of Jason Van Dyke claim McDonald was swinging the knife in his hand aggressively and that he'd battered three officers with it. Prosecutors will say the dashcam video of the shooting doesn't show those things. The reports say Officer Van Dyke backpedaled. Prosecutors will say the video only shows him stepping toward McDonald. And the reports say once Van Dyke had shot him to the pavement, McDonald kept trying to get up, still pointing the knife at him. But prosecutors will likely play the video showing McDonald crumpled on his side, taking one bullet after another. Reports from other officers on the scene backed up Van Dyke's version of the shooting.

In fact, three officers are charged with conspiring to cover up the truth of the shooting and are due to go on trial this fall. Their defenders say the dashcam video gives an incomplete picture of what happened, that it doesn't show the perspective of each officer and that high levels of stress could have distorted the officers' perceptions. But former Chicago police officer Shannon Spalding embraces a different explanation.

SHANNON SPALDING: The code of silence was instantly put into full effect. You are conditioned to never, ever go against another officer.

SMITH: Spalding spoke out about misconduct by her fellow officers. She went undercover in 2008 in a separate case to get evidence that eventually convicted two officers on federal charges. She says she knows what those officers on the scene of the McDonald shooting were feeling.

SPALDING: They were deer in headlights. My gosh, someone was just killed. When you have someone like the street deputy or lieutenant handing you a piece of paper and says, this is what your report is going to say, that becomes the truth.

SMITH: That official narrative held up for more than a year until late 2015, when a judge ordered the city to release the dashcam video of the shooting.

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RAHM EMANUEL: The actions in the video will be debated and discussed in the days ahead.

SMITH: Mayor Rahm Emanuel appealed for a calm response.

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EMANUEL: But we as a city of Chicago, all of us, also have to make an important judgment about ourselves and our city as we go forward.

SMITH: But when the video came out, Chicago erupted in protest.

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UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: Sixteen shots. Sixteen shots. Sixteen shots.

SMITH: The police superintendent was fired. The Justice Department came in to investigate. And for the first time in more than 30 years, a Chicago police officer was charged with first-degree murder for an on-duty shooting. Van Dyke's attorney, Dan Herbert, says the video itself doesn't show the whole truth of what happened.

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DAN HERBERT: People will judge the split-second actions of my client. What was my client experiencing at the time in which he made the split-second decision to fire?

SMITH: And Van Dyke himself says the night he killed McDonald was the first time he'd ever shot his gun while on duty.

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JASON VAN DYKE: I never would have fired my gun if I didn't think my life was in jeopardy. It's - you know, it's something you have to live with forever.

SMITH: One question - whether Jason Van Dyke had to shoot Laquan McDonald that night - could soon be in a jury's hands. For NPR News, I'm Patrick Smith in Chicago.

SHAPIRO: Member station WBEZ is covering the shooting of Laquan McDonald and the trial of Officer Jason Van Dyke in a podcast called "16 Shots."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.