In imperfect system, ‘sensible-looking’ jury in Van Dyke trial offers hope

SHARE In imperfect system, ‘sensible-looking’ jury in Van Dyke trial offers hope

Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke watches the prosecution’s closing arguments during his first-degree murder trial in the shooting death of Laquan McDonald at the Leighton Criminal Court Building on Thursday. | Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune pool photo

The fact that only one African-American is serving on the jury that will decide the fate of Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke for the alleged murder of Laquan McDonald is more than troublesome. It’s wrong.

But as we wait for that jury to return its verdict, it’s also important to recognize that this case will not be decided by 12 angry white men either.

The Van Dyke jurors are a very average looking group of Cook County residents — eight women and four men —  with enough individuals of minority background and experience that the public can have some confidence in their ability to see the world from different points of view.

I wanted to get a look at the jurors for myself Thursday because of the heavy burden that was about to be placed upon them.

While their assigned task is to decide the guilt or innocence of Van Dyke, it’s unavoidably true that they also are shouldering the sometimes conflicting expectations of an entire city.

Jurors’ identities have been carefully protected throughout the proceedings by Cook County Judge Vincent Gaughan. By court order, jurors are never shown on the television feed from the courtroom, nor may they be photographed. Only the barest information about them was made public during selection.

So I attended closing arguments and kept an eye on the jury box.

What struck me right away about the jury was that it was a serious and sensible-looking bunch that was paying close attention.

What makes somebody sensible-looking? I’m not sure. The way they dress, maybe. The way they carry themselves. Was I reacting to the fact the jury is dominated by women? Possibly.

Whatever it was, I found it reassuring, which I admit I was predisposed to think from having seen enough trials to trust the system, imperfect as it is.

Jurors always stick out in a courthouse. You can usually spot them even without the little stickers they are given to wear. They don’t look like the court personnel or the lawyers or the defendants or the litigants. They look like ordinary people plucked off the street or from their homes, which is how it should be.

The Van Dyke jury consists of four white women, three white men, three Hispanic women, one Asian man and one African-American woman.

One of the white men identified himself during jury selection as gay. One of the white women spoke with a trace of an accent that suggested she wasn’t born in the U.S.

In short, it is a diverse group.

Would it have been a more representative cross sampling of our local populace if one of the alternate jurors, an older black man wearing Jay Cutler’s #6 Bears jersey, had been part of the final 12 instead?

Absolutely, and I wish the judge had been more sensitive to that reality.

Despite that, there is still reason to believe this jury will give both Jason Van Dyke and Laquan McDonald a fair shake.

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