The white Chicago police officer who shot to death a black teenager in 2014 told jurors at his murder trial on Tuesday that he felt threatened when he opened fire, as he took the witness stand in his own defense.
Jason Van Dyke, 40, is accused of shooting 17-year-old Laquan McDonald 16 times and faces charges of first-degree murder, aggravated battery and official misconduct in a case that has focused attention on race relations and policing in the third-largest U.S. city.
He is the first Chicago police officer to face a murder charge for an on-duty incident in decades. His decision to testify was not revealed until he took the stand.
Wiping tears away at times, Van Dyke testified that McDonald “never stopped” advancing toward him, getting about 10 to 15 feet (3 to 4.5 meters) away.
“His face had no expression,” Van Dyke said under questioning from his lawyer. “His eyes were buggin’ out.”
McDonald waved his knife and was still holding the knife when he fell to the ground, Van Dyke testified, adding that he shot at the knife. Van Dyke said he did not know how many shots he fired at the time and stopped shooting when McDonald fell and when his gun was empty.
“I’m yelling at him, ‘Drop that knife,’” Van Dyke said. “I just wanted him to get rid of that knife.”
Prosecutors have said Van Dyke was not justified in shooting McDonald. Jurors have repeatedly viewed a video of the incident, which prosecutors have argued shows that McDonald was not moving toward Van Dyke at the time he began firing.
The public release of the dashboard camera video, which came after a journalist filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit, sparked days of protests in Chicago.
Under cross-examination by a prosecutor, Van Dyke said that video and an animated video of the shooting played for the jury do not show what occurred from his point of view.
“It’s not my perspective,” Van Dyke said.
The prosecution grilled Van Dyke on his actions in the moments before the shooting, and noted that the officer continued to shoot after McDonald fell to the ground.
“I shot at that knife,” Van Dyke said. “My focus was just on that knife and I just wanted him to get rid of that knife. That’s all I could think.”
“Cause to me it seemed like he was getting back up and he was in the fight,” Van Dyke said later.
Van Dyke’s lawyers have portrayed McDonald as an unruly, threatening criminal who was under the influence of a drug.
Van Dyke also told jurors he had drawn his gun several times in his career, but had never fired it in the line of duty before the Oct. 20, 2014 incident. “I’m very proud of that,” he said.
The trial, now in its third week, will continue on Wednesday. The 12-person jury includes one black member.