The Cook County judge presiding over Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke’s murder case sealed the courtroom Friday during testimony by witnesses Van Dyke’s defense team may call to outline the troubled past of teenager Laquan McDonald.
The move by Judge Vincent Gaughan was opposed by lawyers representing multiple news outlets, including the Chicago Sun-Times, who also have opposed the judge’s long-standing “decorum order,” which bars lawyers from speaking to the press about the case and requires most filings to be placed under seal.
Defense lawyers have said they intended to call up to nine witnesses, all of whom likely can testify to violent encounters with McDonald that pre-date the 2014 evening when the 17-year-old was shot dead by Van Dyke on South Pulaski Road.
The hearing began around 11:45 a.m., and the courtroom was reopened to the public around 2 p.m.
The testimony will be key to building a self-defense argument for Van Dyke, but Gaughan based his ruling, in part, on the fact the witnesses in the high-profile case might also face scrutiny from neighbors who learn they may testify for Van Dyke’s defense.
“If someone finds out you’re going to be called as a witness at the Jason Van Dyke trial, it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that you might be ostracized, you might be intimidated, you might be harmed,” Gaughan said.
Van Dyke told investigators that he opened fire on McDonald because the teen moved toward him with a knife, an account that does not seem to jibe with dashboard camera video that shows McDonald walking away from police when he was shot 16 times.
State law allows Van Dyke to introduce evidence that shows McDonald had a “propensity for violence,” by way of making a case that Van Dyke acted in self-defense when he opened fire.
McDonald’s juvenile court records were released in 2016 after a request by media organizations. The records detailed a lengthy history with the child welfare authorities and the juvenile justice system dating back to when McDonald was a toddler.
Caseworkers, some presumably the sort of witnesses Van Dyke’s lawyers are hoping to call, described a child who had endured physical and emotional abuse, and who sometimes acted out violently.
Gaughan will eventually rule on which witnesses can take the stand if Van Dyke opts to go to trial. He also said that transcripts of their testimony from Friday will only be made public after they have testified at trial —likely months from now. Gaughan said that the public would have access to the evidence, though presumably only when the witnesses are on the stand.
“Nobody is going to deprive anybody of evidence,” he said. “It’s not a matter of if it’s going to be presented to the public, it’s a matter of when.”
Friday marked the first time Gaughan has barred the public from the courtroom, though most of the hearings in the case begin with an “informal scheduling conference” with attorneys in his chambers. The meetings can last an hour or more with the public given only a brief summary.
The judge, at a special hearing Saturday, ruled that most of the filings in the case — nearly all of which had been sealed since Van Dyke the case was assigned to Gaughan in 2015—would be released, though most would be redacted.
The measures are exceptional for all but a handful of criminal cases in the bustling Leighton Criminal Courthouse, though Gaughan has applied similar rules in other high-profile cases in his courtroom.
Arguing in favor of sealing the courtroom, Assistant Special Prosecutor Dan Weiler made several references to Gaughan sealing the courtroom a decade ago in singer R. Kelly’s child pornography case at a pre-trial hearing involving testimony about juvenile witnesses.