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Editorial: Lift gag order in Van Dyke case

Judge Vincent Gaughan presides over the Jason Van Dyke hearing at the Leighton Criminal Courts Building in 2016 . (Nancy Stone/Chicago Tribune, Pool)

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The public has a right — in fact, a responsibility — to monitor the courts to ensure they are operating fairly. To do that, the public needs the courts to operate in an open matter.

But as preparations for the trial of Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke unfold, lawyers are at times refusing to comment, citing a gag order issued by Cook County Judge Vincent Gaughan. The gag order, which limits what information can be released, is unnecessary and an affront to the public.

Van Dyke is charged with the murder of Laquan McDonald, 17, who was slain on Oct. 20, 2014. The case became controversial partly because of perceived secrecy — it took more than 13 months to release a video of the incident and to bring charges. Public outrage already has cost the Cook County state’s attorney and the Chicago police superintendent their jobs.

The proceedings are at an early stage, and even with a gag order, reporters have been able to figure out the legal developments. But the clamp on information and newsgathering is unnecessary. The presumption should be that the public has a right to know what is going on.

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Usually, the reason for suppressing a piece of evidence is that making it public might bias potential jurors and deprive a defendant of a fair trial. That doesn’t apply in this case. As Rob Warden of InjusticeWatch.org points out, anyone with a TV, computer or smart phone probably has seen the most significant piece of evidence — the police dashcam that recorded Van Dyke shooting McDonald 16 times — many times. Moreover, there’s a good chance this case will wind up as a bench trial, in which the judge renders the verdict and there are no jurors to be swayed before the trial.

Gaughan, an experienced judge who generally gets good reviews from the bar associations, has been down this road before. He imposed a gag order in the 2008 R Kelly child pornography trial, leading the Chicago Sun-Times and Chicago Tribune to file a motion asking that all Kelly-related court records be made public.

The problem with a gag order — as opposed to a judicial ruling on a single piece of evidence — is that it encompasses a broad array of information. Also, as at the R Kelly trial, the Van Dyke proceedings have included a series of closed-door meetings that exclude the news media.

As the Sun-Times pointed out in its 2008 filing, “The right [to access court records] is essential to the public’s right to monitor the functioning of our courts, thereby insuring quality, honesty and respect for our legal system.”

That’s especially true of important cases that have become a major point of public debate. No veil of secrecy should cover the Van Dyke case.

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