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Mitchell: Laquan McDonald’s juvenile records off-limits

Laquan McDonald | provided

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Cook County Judge Patricia M. Martin did the decent thing.

The presiding judge of the child protection division of the Juvenile Court barred lawyers for Jason Van Dyke, the Chicago Police officer accused of shooting Laquan McDonald 16 times, from digging through the sordid details of the teenager’s short life.

Van Dyke’s lawyers had argued that they needed to view the juvenile records to prepare a defense for their client.

But lawyers for McDonald’s mother, Tina Hunter, called it what it was: a “fishing expedition” to dig up negative information about the victim, the Chicago Tribune reported.

Van Dyke has pleaded not guilty to first-degree murder charges in the death of the 17-year-old. The white Chicago Police officer is accused of fatally shooting the black teen, who was carrying a small knife as he walked away from Van Dyke and other officers.

OPINION

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The release of the video that captured the shooting sparked massive protests downtown and resulted in Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez losing her bid for re-election.

Joseph McMahon, the Kane County state’s attorney, has been appointed special prosecutor to try this case.

Martin allowed news media, including the Chicago Sun-Times, to examine those protected juvenile records in December.

RELATED: Judge: Van Dyke attorneys can’t access Laquan’s juvenile records

It has been widely reported that McDonald had an unfortunate life that included being placed in foster care at an early age, using drugs and rotating in and out of the Cook County Juvenile Detention Center.

The juvenile records include details about McDonald’s mental health, his run-ins with other detainees and his outbursts.

At the time of his death, McDonald was still a ward of the state.

Anyone poring through the juvenile records would conclude that McDonald was on a path that often leads to destruction.

Still, it is not McDonald who is on trial.

While it is not unusual for defense lawyers to examine a victim’s past, especially in cases where a person is accused of sexual assault, the Juvenile Court Act prohibits access to a juvenile’s court record.

As advocates continue to push for the firing and criminal prosecution of police officers accused of unjustly shooting suspects — many of them young black males — questions will be raised about when it is relevant to bring up a victim’s past and when doing so is a needless trauma for the victim’s family.

A lawyer representing the family of a man killed by police in his Florida home in 2013 told The Christian Science Monitor the “strategy is to try to manipulate public opinion by showing that the victim had a previous criminal record.”

In that case, Jermaine McBean was carrying an unloaded air rifle when sheriff deputies ordered him to drop his weapon.

One deputy, Peter Peraza, fired his gun. He was indicted on a felony manslaughter charges. The charges were later dropped based on Florida’s “stand your ground laws.”

But his lawyers had argued that McBean had a history of mental illness and pushed to subpoena his medical records.

David Schoen, who represented McBean’s family in a civil wrongful death suit, strenuously disagreed.

“You don’t have the right to shoot someone because in the past they’ve had mental health problems, you don’t have the right to shoot someone because they were bipolar,” he told The Christian Monitor.

What matters in the Jason Van Dyke murder trial is not Laquan McDonald’s troubled childhood.

What matters is whether or not on the night of October 20, 2014, Van Dyke was justified in shooting this teenager 16 times.

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