Monday, September 24, 2018

Will Van Dyke be bold enough to ‘take the stand’ to defend his conduct?

It’s a standard question going into a criminal trial – will the defendant testify in his own case.
Van Dyke is one of many thousands of criminal defendants to pass through this nearly-century-old building
There are those who think Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke desperately needs to give his perspective of the happenings of Oct. 20, 2014 – the night he killed 17-year-old Laquan McDonald.

I STATE THAT as a fact beyond dispute; McDonald is dead and buried and not going to have the life his parents would have dreamed for him because of Van Dyke’s actions.

Which is why this entire trial is not about what Van Dyke did – but why!

Because we do give our police significant authority to use force, including deadly force, in the performance of their jobs. Which is why defense attorneys have tried to present the image of a McDonald who was strung out on drugs to the point where he was out of control.

Which made that knife he was waving about a very deadly weapon to anybody who happened to be near him.

IT’S CLEAR FROM the four days of testimony that prosecutors presented that they want us to think of this as an open-and-shut case. Van Dyke fired multiple gunshots into McDonald’s body and he died. So now, Van Dyke must go to prison.

But life is never that clear-cut, even though all of us want to believe life’s questions can all be answered with “yes” or “no.”

So when the Van Dyke defense begins its work come Monday at the Criminal Courts building, the big issue will be whether Van Dyke himself will take the stand and submit to questions about what he did that night in ’14.
VAN DYKE: Will he be able to clear his name?

Van Dyke has the legal right to refuse to say anything. He can’t be forced to take the stand and submit to questions. We require prosecutors to prove their own cases – and do not permit them to intimidate people into testifying against themselves.

IN FACT, MANY criminal cases do not result in a defendant taking the stand. I have seen countless trials in which a defendant does not put up any defense – with attorneys arguing that prosecutors so clearly failed to prove their case they don’t feel the need to say or do anything for the record.

And yes, it has worked, because the burden of proof is on prosecutors to show their case is legitimate. I’m sure Van Dyke would like to think he falls into that category.

But there are people who want to hear Van Dyke’s own words about that night. It’s almost as though they’re a group of “Ricky Ricardos,” telling Van Dyke’s “Lucy” to “splain” himself and what he was thinking when his reaction four years ago to encountering McDonald was to pull out his pistol and fire 16 shots into Laquan’s body.

But if he does that, he also opens himself up to questioning from prosecutors, who with their “yes” or “no” mentality will be more than willing to put pointed questions to him meant to make Van Dyke appear to be mean and vindictive.

IN FACT, I have seen criminal trials where prosecutors are so demanding of a “yes” or “no”-type answer that they refuse to allow the elaboration of detail usually required to get at the whole truth of a situation.

Despite the claims of legal officials that our judicial system is meant to elicit truth, my own experiences in covering courts throughout the years have led me to believe the reality is that prosecutors and defense attorneys are given the chance to present their own versions of what they want us to believe happened – then we leave it up to that mythical “jury of our peers” to decide which version we believe.
Will police reputation escape taint?

So does Van Dyke have enough faith in his memory of what happened that night that he’ll be willing to submit to prosecutorial questions meant to trip him up? Will his take on the events sway anyone who has spent the past four years developing their own impression of what they believe happened that night?

Or will it become more fodder for the cynics of our society that this trial – which is progressing much more quickly than I would have expected – was “rigged” from the beginning?


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