Dashcam video shows Chicago police shooting of Laquan McDonald
More than six months after Chicago police Officer Jason Van Dyke was convicted in Laquan McDonald’s fatal shooting, nearly 20 documents from his historic prosecution will remain hidden from public view, a Cook County judge ruled Wednesday.
Judge Vincent Gaughan had taken extraordinary measures in the lead-up to Van Dyke’s trial to seal key court filings and transcripts and even clear some hearings of spectators and reporters, but he had repeatedly promised that the evidence would eventually be made public.
On Wednesday, however, Gaughan said 18 documents would remain under wraps: about half dealing with a defense attempt to toss out Van Dyke’s indictment and the other half referring to McDonald’s allegedly violent and troubled past. Some had been filed as long ago as February 2017.
Even though the trial has long concluded and Van Dyke’s own attorney did not object to their release, Gaughan ruled Wednesday that making those documents public could needlessly injure some people’s reputations and risk the safety of certain witnesses.
As the case proceeded toward trial last fall, attorneys for several news organizations, including the Chicago Tribune, pushed back against Gaughan’s secretive tactics. When the trial concluded, they asked the judge to release more than 100 court filings and transcripts of sealed hearings, arguing that there was no reason to hold them back with the trial completed.
Prosecutors and Van Dyke’s attorneys agreed that almost 90 of those documents – some filed as long ago as three years ago – could be made available. Gaughan signed an order Wednesday authorizing their release, but it could take nearly two weeks before the county circuit clerk’s office makes them available at their public-access terminals.
Among the documents to be released are reports from expert witnesses ahead of their trial testimony and documents from a separate defense attempt for Van Dyke’s indictment to be tossed out. In addition, transcripts of trial sidebars and written questions submitted by jurors during deliberations will be unsealed.
Prosecutors alone objected to the release of 21 documents. Gaughan agreed that 18 of those documents should be kept sealed, but he reserved ruling on three others dealing with FBI agents’ objection to being shown on camera during their trial testimony. The judge said he first wanted to hear from the agents’ attorneys.
Many of the still-sealed documents dealt with the defense’s allegation that prosecutors had acted unethically before grand jurors. Prosecutors objected to releasing those records because grand jury testimony is traditionally kept secret. They argued that even documents alluding to that testimony should not be made public.
It is common enough, however, for court filings in Cook County to include excerpts or paraphrases of grand jury testimony.
Gaughan agreed with prosecutors but went a step further, saying that the accusations of misconduct against prosecutors were baseless and that releasing those filings would amount to a public smear.
“These allegations are unsubstantiated. They were not supported by any evidence whatsoever, and people no matter who they are ... have a right to some of their reputations,” he said.
Prosecutors also objected to unsealing documents that dealt with McDonald’s troubled past. To bolster the argument that Van Dyke acted in self-defense, the officer’s attorneys wanted to call several witnesses – including McDonald’s mother – to testify to show that McDonald had a tendency toward violence.
But Illinois law restricting access to juvenile court information protected some of the information in those filings from being made public, special prosecutor Joseph McMahon said. He also argued their release would be insensitive to McDonald’s family.
Gaughan ordered those filings to remain sealed largely because those people could still be at risk if their names were made public, even though the trial is long over.
The judge also declined to release those documents after blacking out any identifying information, saying, “the content remaining would be incomprehensible.”
Gaughan took highly unusual measures to control the release of information, citing his concern for Van Dyke’s right to a fair trial. He “gagged” lawyers and anyone remotely connected to the case from speaking publicly about it, repeatedly held closed-door meetings in chambers with lawyers and cleared the courtroom of reporters and spectators four times in order to hear arguments and testimony.
Last year the news organizations appealed to the Illinois Supreme Court to end Gaughan’s practice of keeping every filing under seal in his chambers, often for weeks or months, saying he had trampled on the First Amendment’s “presumption of public access.”
The state’s highest court ordered Gaughan to end the practice.
Van Dyke, 41, was convicted in October of second-degree murder and 16 counts of aggravated battery and sentenced in January to 6 3/4 years in prison. With both credit for time served while awaiting sentencing and expected day-for-day credit for good behavior, he is slated for release in February 2022, records show. Due to apparent security concerns, he was moved out of the Illinois prison system and is currently being held at a federal prison in New York.
The case against him centered on the now-infamous police dashboard camera video of the shooting in October 2014. The court-ordered release of the graphic images more than a year later sparked political upheaval and led to a sprawling federal civil rights probe into the systemic mistreatment of citizens by Chicago police, particularly in the city’s minority communities.