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Ex-cop Jason Van Dyke, who killed Laquan McDonald, is released from prison early

TAMARA KEITH, HOST:

The chant 16 shots and a cover-up has long rallied protesters of a fatal police shooting in Chicago. Today, the former police officer involved in that shooting was released from prison. Jason Van Dyke served less than half of his nearly seven-year sentence for killing a teenager in 2014. His release has sparked a new round of protests.

NPR's Cheryl Corley has been following the case and joins us now. Hi, Cheryl.

CHERYL CORLEY, BYLINE: Hi.

KEITH: You were there at the federal courthouse plaza today, where protesters gathered. What were they saying?

CORLEY: Well, you know, Tamara, the rally is really just getting underway. But many of the folks here say it's time for Jason Van Dyke to face new charges. You know, community leaders, including Jesse Jackson of Rainbow PUSH, and other activists are meeting with the U.S. District Attorney here. And they're delivering a letter which kind of details their desire to have Jason Van Dyke face federal charges. They say, just like former Minneapolis police officers that are on trial now in Minnesota for violating the federal civil rights of George Floyd by not preventing his death, that Jason Van Dyke did the same thing with Laquan McDonald.

KEITH: Yeah. Let's go back a step and, if you could, remind us about this case. Jason Van Dyke was released from state custody this morning. Why has there been such an intense focus on this case?

CORLEY: Well, you know, this was the first time in decades that a Chicago police officer was charged on - for on-duty shooting. It was 2014 when Jason Van Dyke, who is white, shot Laquan McDonald 16 times. McDonald was 17 and Black. He had a knife, was walking away from police.

And from the very beginning of this case, there's been political overtones. There were charges of a political cover-up since it took a court order to get the dash cam video of the incident released, and the tape was released after a mayoral race election was over. And that video basically showed that the police had lied about what happened, and the case also eventually led to a Department of Justice investigation of the police department.

As you mentioned, Van Dyke was convicted of second-degree murder, 16 counts of aggravated battery. A judge sentenced him on what was considered the lesser charge, gave him 81 months in prison. And Van Dyke spent about three years in prison because of good time credits. And today, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot says she knows there are people who remain disenheartened (ph) and angry about this Van Dyke sentence.

KEITH: You mentioned that advocates want federal charges. How likely is it that the Justice Department would move forward with federal charges?

CORLEY: Yeah. Well, former Assistant U.S. Attorney Ron Safer says he really understands the disappointment. He says the Van Dyke sentence was really inadequate, too, for the killing of a young man. But any federal trial for Jason Van Dyke, he says, would be unlikely.

RON SAFER: Do we want serial prosecutions for essentially the same crime because the public views the end results to be less than satisfying?

CORLEY: He says Van Dyke has already served his term, unlike the former police officers in Minnesota that are standing trial for violating the federal civil rights of George Floyd.

KEITH: I understand there are also members of the victim's family that don't want to pursue federal charges.

CORLEY: Yeah, there are. An uncle who has been the longtime spokesperson of the family, Marvin Hunter - he told me, protests over this case should have happened long ago.

MARVIN HUNTER: The time did not fit the crime. But the truth of the matter is we were trying to reset the dial of justice in America with this case and set a precedent, of which we truly did.

CORLEY: He says Van Dyke shouldn't have to face federal charges even though he just wasn't happy with the sentence, either.

KEITH: NPR's Cheryl Corley in Chicago. Thank you.

CORLEY: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.