Joel Levin, acting U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Illinois, speaks to the news media at the Dirksen U.S. Courthouse in Chicago on Aug. 28, 2017, after a federal jury convicted Chicago police Officer Marco Proano of using excessive force in December 2013. (Terrence Antonio James / Chicago Tribune)
Chicago police Officer Marco Proano claimed he was just doing his job when he fired 16 shots at a stolen car filled with teenagers on the South Side, wounding two.
But a federal jury decided Monday that the shooting — captured on a police dashboard camera video — wasn’t the action of a cop but a criminal.
In an unprecedented verdict, the jury deliberated about four hours before convicting Proano of two felony counts of using excessive force in violating the victims’ civil rights. He faces a maximum of 10 years in prison on each count but likely will get far less because he has no prior criminal history.
Dressed in a dark gray suit and glasses, the 11-year veteran kept his hands clasped in front of him on the defense table and showed no emotion as the verdict was announced in U.S. District Judge Gary Feinerman’s hushed courtroom.
Feinerman scheduled sentencing for Nov. 20. But federal prosecutors indicated they will seek next week to detain Proano as a danger to the community.
Proano is the first Chicago cop in memory to be convicted in federal court of criminal charges stemming from an on-duty shooting. He also was the first officer to go to trial in any shooting case since the court-ordered release of the Laquan McDonald shooting video in November 2015 sparked heated protests, political turmoil and promises of systemic change from Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
Earlier this year, a U.S. Department of Justice investigation found the Police Department’s use-of-force training was woefully lacking, part of a systemic failure that led to the routine abuse of citizens’ civil rights.
Proano’s quick conviction on the federal criminal charges was in stark contrast to how recent police misconduct cases have played out in Cook County Criminal Court, where officers often elect for bench trials instead of a jury.
In the highest-profile case, former Detective Dante Servin was cleared in April 2015 by Cook County Judge Dennis Porter of involuntary manslaughter in the fatal, off-duty shooting of 22-year-old Rekia Boyd on the West Side. The judge’s ruling all but said that prosecutors should have charged him with murder, not the lesser charge.
Also in 2015, Cook County Judge Diane Gordon Cannon acquitted then-Chicago police Cmdr. Glenn Evans on charges he shoved his gun down Rickey Williams’ throat and threatened to kill him while on duty. In throwing out all charges, Cannon belittled evidence of Williams’ DNA on Evans’ service weapon as “of fleeting relevance or significance.”
Earlier this year, Cook County Judge James Linn acquitted Officer John Gorman of all charges stemming from an off-duty incident in which he was accused of firing shots at a vehicle during a traffic altercation after he’d been drinking.
Speaking to reporters after the verdict, acting U.S. Attorney Joel Levin acknowledged that without video evidence, it’s extremely difficult to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that an officer knew he was using excessive force when he opened fire.
“Historically, the lack of videos has made it difficult for us to meet our burden,” Levin said in the lobby of the Dirksen U.S. Courthouse. “With the availability of more videos … it can, as it did in this case, supply the evidence we need to make the case.”
Proano left the courthouse without comment, ignoring shouted questions from reporters as he ducked into a waiting SUV. His lawyer, Daniel Herbert, also declined to comment.
The Police Department is seeking to fire Proano, who was placed on unpaid suspension after he was charged last September. In an emailed statement, Superintendent Eddie Johnson called Proano’s actions “intolerable.”
Meanwhile, the Fraternal Order of Police, the union representing rank-and-file officers, expressed disappointment at the verdict in a statement released Monday afternoon.
“The pressure on the police is making the job extremely difficult,” FOP President Kevin Graham said in the statement. “It seems that the criminal elements in our society are not accountable in our justice system, while the police face an intense scrutiny for every split-second decision they make.”
Prosecutors said the dashcam video of the shooting — which unfolded in about nine seconds — showed Proano violated all of the training he received at the Police Academy, including to never fire into a crowd, only fire if you can clearly see your target and to stop shooting once the threat has been eliminated.
The video — played several times for jurors during the trial, including in slow-motion — showed Proano walking quickly toward the stolen Toyota within seconds of arriving at the scene while he held his gun pointed sideways in his left hand. Proano can be seen backing away briefly as the car went in reverse, away from the officer. He then raised his gun with both hands and opened fire as he walked toward the car, continuing to fire even after the car had rolled into a light pole and stopped.
“Marco Proano drew first, shot next and then he tried to justify it later,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Erika Csicsila said in her closing argument Monday. “He came out of his car like a cowboy, he pulled his gun out, held it to one side and aimed it at those kids to send a message and to show who was in charge.”
Last week, jurors heard testimony from two Chicago police training officers that cops are taught to shoot only as a last resort against a deadly threat and to reassess the danger every two or three shots before continuing to fire.
Herbert argued Monday that the officer did exactly as he was trained — to stop the threat and also protect the life of one of the teens, who was hanging from the passenger window as the car reversed.
In his closing remarks, Herbert also accused prosecutors of armchair quarterbacking the shooting, making decisions from the safety of their office about what was a tense and dangerous situation.
“They made that decision (to charge Proano) sitting at their desks, eating popcorn and watching the video, not out on the street like Officer Proano,” Herbert said.
Herbert also represents Officer Jason Van Dyke, who is awaiting trial on first-degree murder charges in Cook County in the Laquan McDonald shooting.
Proano, a native of Ecuador, joined the Police Department in 2006 and was assigned as a beat cop in the Gresham District after graduating from the academy.
Prosecutors were not allowed to present evidence of Proano’s checkered past, including that the shooting was his third in a three-year span.
In August 2010, Proano shot and wounded a 20-year-old woman in the 700 block of West 91st Street, according to a Tribune database of police shootings from 2010 to 2015.
Less than a year later, in July 2011, Proano fatally shot 19-year-old Niko Husband at close range during a struggle as police tried to break up an unruly dance party on the South Side. Proano claimed Husband had tried to pull a gun.
Proano was not only cleared by the city’s much-maligned police oversight agency for Husband’s shooting but was awarded a department commendation for valor, records show.
In November 2015, a Cook County jury found Husband’s shooting unjustified, awarding his mother $3.5 million in damages, but a judge overturned the verdict based on a legal problem with the decision. That ruling is being appealed.
In his closing remarks to the jury Monday, Herbert noted that the shooting Proano was charged with happened in a dangerous neighborhood and that Proano was responding to a fellow officer’s call for help after the teens in the car refused commands.
Snapping his fingers for emphasis, Herbert said the “split-second” evaluation Proano made to stop the threat was clearly justifiable under the law and that the video — which has no audio — did not capture the chaos of the scene.
“(Prosecutors) want you to look at this video and say, ‘Bad!'” Herbert said. “Well, that’s not enough.”
In her rebuttal, Assistant U.S. Attorney Georgia Alexakis mocked Herbert’s claim that Proano’s decision to fire was made in a split-second.
At one point, she counted nine seconds aloud to the jury to demonstrate how long Proano kept firing. She also displayed a diagram depicting the bullet-riddled side of the car, where one of the teens testified he had cowered in fear as the shots kept coming.
“The defendant made a concerted, conscious decision to keep firing at the Toyota even after any threat had evaporated,” Alexakis said. “Each and every one of those bullets was capable of killing someone.”
Jason Meisner, August 29, 2017, Chicago Tribune, “Jury convicts Chicago cop of excessive force for firing 16 shots at car, wounding 2 teens”, http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/local/breaking/ct-chicago-police-shooting-trial-marco-proano-met-0829-20170828-story.html