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Kane County state’s attorney named as prosecutor in Van Dyke case

Jason Van Dyke approaches the bench at a hearing Thursday, Aug. 4, 2016 at the Leighton Criminal Court in Chicago. Kane County State's Attorney Joseph McMahon was sworn in as the independent attorney to prosecute Chicago police Officer Jason Van Dyke. (Nancy Stone/Pool/Chicago Tribune)

Kane County State’s Attorney Joseph McMahon was named Thursday as the special prosecutor assigned to handle Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke’s murder case, much to the chagrin of a coalition of lawyers and activists who said they would have preferred someone with an “understanding of Chicago and its most affected communities.”

Just last week, civil rights attorneys Locke Bowman and G. Flint Taylor expressed elation over the selection of former Cook County Judge Patricia Brown Holmes as the special prosecutor to look into whether Chicago Police officers covered up the circumstances that led to the fatal shooting of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald.

Bowman and Taylor couldn’t be reached Thursday for comment, but in a joint statement the two men and other attorneys who had sought the special prosecutors expressed disappointment over Cook County Judge Vincent Gaughan’s pick of the 50-year-old McMahon as the lawyer to prosecute Van Dyke, who is accused of pumping 16 bullets into the black teenager.

Kane County State’s Attorney Joseph McMahon talks to reporters after he was appointed as special prosecutor in the Jason Van Dyke murder case /Rummana Hussain for the Sun-Times
Kane County State’s Attorney Joseph McMahon talks to reporters after he was appointed as special prosecutor in the Jason Van Dyke murder case /Rummana Hussain for the Sun-Times

Holmes, an African-American, or someone similar to her, would have been a better choice, the lawyers said in the statement.

“Judge Gaughan could have chosen Judge Holmes for this assignment, or he could have selected someone with similar understanding of Chicago and its most affected communities,” according to the statement.

McMahon told reporters that he will be working with a team of veteran prosecutors, including his colleagues in Kane County: Jody Gleason, Joseph Cullen and Daniel Weiler.

Also helping McMahon will be Marilyn Hite Ross, an African-American woman and former Cook County prosecutor who is now the chief of the criminal bureau in Winnebago County.

But that was not acceptable, according to the statement from the civil rights lawyers.

“Given the high number of qualified attorneys in Cook County who have the experience, resources and who are fully independent from law enforcement we’re surprised and disappointed that all of them have been passed over in favor of the Kane County state’s attorney and his team, which includes a former Cook County assistant state’s attorney,” the statement read.

Meanwhile, McMahon said he was glad to accept the responsibility Gaughan gave him.“Every case, whatever the situation is, has its own unique challenges. I expect this case to be no different,” McMahon said after Gaughan announced his appointment and swore him into the office Thursday.

Kane County State’s Attorney Joseph McMahon is sworn in by Judge Vincent Gaughan as the independent attorney to prosecute Chicago police Officer Jason Van Dyke during a hearing on Thursday, Aug. 4, 2016 at the Leighton Criminal Courts Building in Chicago.
Kane County State’s Attorney Joseph McMahon is sworn in by Judge Vincent Gaughan as the independent attorney to prosecute Chicago police Officer Jason Van Dyke during a hearing on Thursday, Aug. 4, 2016 at the Leighton Criminal Courts Building in Chicago. Chicago police Officer Jason Van Dyke was present at the hearing. (Nancy Stone/Pool/Chicago Tribune)

McMahon stressed that 38-year-old Van Dyke, like other defendants, should be considered innocent until proven guilty.

“I and this team has one goal in this case, that is to find the truth, to present the truth and ask that justice be served in this case,” McMahon said.

While McMahon didn’t give specifics, he said his team has had years of experience prosecuting violent crimes, including crimes against police officers.

He also noted that the Kane County state’s attorney office has previously served as a special prosecutor in DuPage, McHenry and Kendall counties.

Anne Kavanagh, a spokeswoman for Van Dyke’s lawyer, Daniel Herbert, said, “The defense has never objected to the special prosecutor in this case and they’re prepared to defend the case no matter who the prosecutor is.”

McMahon’s appointment comes after Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez recused herself from the Van Dyke case in May.

McMahon, who has been a lawyer for 24 years, was appointed to be Kane County state’s attorney in 2010 after his predecessor left to become a judge. He successfully ran for the job in 2012 as a Republican and is running for re-election this year.

McMahon grew up in Kane County, got his bachelor’s degree in 1988 from the University of Iowa and his law degree from the John Marshall Law School in 1992. McMahon also has an MBA from the University of Notre Dame.

McMahon had worked in private practice became a prosecutor in 1992 in Kane County. From 1998 to 2000, he served as chief of the criminal division there.

As a prosecutor, McMahon said he has handled “all sorts of cases . . . from low level cases . . . to murder cases, crimes of violence and gang-related offenses.”

Kane County State’s Attorney’s Office spokesman Christopher Nelson said since McMahon became top prosecutor there, the office has handled roughly 60 murder cases, including those that were pending from years before.

McMahon has had “a role” in each matter, Nelson said.

Of those cases, 39 resulted in a finding of guilty either by plea or by verdict, and 18 are pending, Nelson said.