On Monday, Chicago authorities announced that they will not bring charges against police officer George Hernandez, who shot and killed black civilian Ronald Johnson in October 2014. The case bears similarities to another officer-related shooting from that same month, in which Officer Jason Van Dyke was accused of shooting 17-year-old Laquan McDonald 16 times. Van Dyke was later charged with first-degree murder. Some have wondered why similar charges weren't filed against Officer Hernandez, but in the eyes of Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez, the two incidents could not have been more different.
"It is our determination that no criminal charges should be brought against Officer Hernandez because the crime cannot be proven beyond a reasonable doubt," said Alvarez in a news conference on Monday. She spoke in coordination with the release of video footage which apparently showed that Johnson had been carrying a 9mm pistol at the time of his death, and had tussled briefly with police officers prior to being gunned down.
Those words were in stark contrast to the way in which Alvarez presented the murder charges against Van Dyke last month. During a Nov. 24 news conference, Alvarez spoke harshly about Van Dyke's actions against McDonald, who had been walking away from Van Dyke on the evening of Oct. 20, 2014, when Van Dyke opened fire on the teen from 15 feet away.
"I am very confident with the charges that I have just [announced] that we will be able to meet our burden and that we have the evidence available to do it," Alvarez told a pack of reporters during the press conference. "There's a deep distrust in law enforcement — clearly this officer went overboard and he abused his authority."
A video recording of the incident released that same day supported Alvarez's statements. In dashcam footage from the night of McDonald's death, the teen can be seen holding a three-inch folding knife, but walking away from officers at a moderate pace — evidence which directly contradicts Van Dyke and his supporting officers' statements that McDonald had been running at them, swinging the knife violently. In police documents, Van Dyke had claimed that he felt threatened.
In Johnson's case, Alvarez argued, there was more than enough physical and video evidence to support Hernandez's claim that he and the other officers had felt the need to discharge their weapons. "All of the evidence points to the fact that Mr. Johnson did indeed have a gun that evening," she said on Monday. "Police officers are often forced to make split-second judgments in circumstances that are tense, uncertain, and rapidly evolving about the amount of force that is necessary in any particular situation."
However, Johnson family attorney Michael Oppenheimer argued that the attorney's office had made a mistake in not filing charges, claiming that Johnson had never pointed a gun at the officers prior to his death. Instead, he argued that the 25-year-old had not been brandishing a weapon at all. "There was nothing in his hand, not a gun, a cellphone, a bottle of water — nothing," said Oppenheimer, suggesting that the weapon found near Johnson's body later had not belonged to him. Oppenheimer then placed the blame squarely on Hernandez. "Nobody fired their weapons until George Hernandez pulled up in a car, got out and drew his weapon and fired five shots at the back of Ronald Johnson."