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Judge to decide location for Laquan McDonald murder trial Friday

Chicago police Officer Jason Van Dyke sits and listens to arguments during the hearing for the shooting death of Laquan McDonald, at the Leighton Criminal Court Building, Tuesday, July 31, 2018. | Antonio Perez/ Chicago Tribune/Pool

With a trial date looming little more than a month away, where Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke will stand trial for the murder of Laquan McDonald remains undecided.

Van Dyke’s lawyers want to move the trial out of Cook County — where the McDonald shooting has prompted protests, federal inquiries into the CPD, and roiled local politics since video of the shooting was released in 2015. Here’s a rundown on some of the happenings in the case, and what’s likely to happen Friday.

Why would they move the case out Cook County?

Van Dyke’s lawyers argue that the veteran cop can’t get a fair trial in Chicago, where dashcam video of Van Dyke firing 16 shots into the 17-year-old McDonald has been seen by more than 70 percent of residents, according to polling by a defense expert who is set to testify Friday. In the poll, 51 percent of those surveyed in Cook County believe Van Dyke is “definitely guilty.” More than two-thirds of those polled by the defense said it would be difficult to convince them Van Dyke is not guilty.

What’s the argument for keeping the trial in Cook County?

Special Prosecutor Joseph McMahon points out that the odds are better of finding 12 unbiased jurors in Cook County, where there are 5.2 million residents — and 3.9 million eligible to serve jurors — than any other county in Illinois. Polling conducted for the prosecution shows 79 percent of potential jurors say that while they know about the case, 45 percent say they don’t know enough about the case to decide a verdict.

In this image from an Oct. 20, 2014, police dashcam video, Laquan McDonald (right), walks down the street moments before being shot 16 times and killed by Officer Jason Van Dyke. | Chicago Police Department
In this Oct. 20, 2014 frame from dashcam video provided by the Chicago Police Department, Laquan McDonald (right), walks down the street moments before being fatally shot by CPD officer Jason Van Dyke sixteen times in Chicago. | Chicago Police Department via AP File

Where would the trial take place, if not Cook County?

Defense experts polled residents in three counties: Cook, north suburban Lake and Madison, the latter located about four hours southwest of Chicago, near St. Louis. The prosecution polled residents in the collar counties of DuPage and Will, as well as Peoria, McLean and St. Clair.

How likely is it that the trial would be moved?

Generally speaking, “Motions to move a trial are rarely filed, and even more rarely granted,” said Jeffrey Urdangen, director of the Center for Criminal Defense at Northwestern’s Pritzker School of Law. Judges typically try to deal with the potential for bias among jurors with measures that don’t involve the expense and logistical headaches of holding a trial in a different jurisdiction, Urdangen said. Among those options are having prospective jurors fill out a questionnaire and allowing attorneys extended questioning during jury selection.

Moving a case to another jurisdiction has been a rarity in Cook County. Courthouse observers can only recall two instances, decades apart, where Cook County jurors did not decide a case charged here: the 1967 trial of Richard Speck, which was moved to Peoria; and the 1980 trial of John Wayne Gacy, where jurors were selected from Winnebago County residents, who were then brought to Chicago.

What’s likely to happen?

According to Van Dyke’s defense team, Van Dyke’s trial is staying in Cook County so long as Judge Vincent Gaughan is making the call. Van Dyke’s lawyers likened Friday’s hearing to a pro wrestling match “wherein the outcome has been pre-determined,” and that Gaughan has already made up his mind. The defense filed an unorthodox motion — which was denied earlier this week — that would have had another judge rule on the location of the trial. Gaughan, who has presided over high-profile cases such as Chicago R&B star R. Kelly’s trial on child pornography charges, has shown growing impatience with the pace of the Van Dyke case, but has repeatedly extended deadlines for the defense to file a report from their jury expert.

If Gaughan rules against their motion, it’s not clear whether the defense would present their 600-page report on potential jury bias to an appeals court, and how that might effect the Sept. 5 trial date Gaughan has set. Despite their intensive research on the jury pool, Van Dyke’s lawyers have yet to say whether they intend to opt for a jury trial or let Gaughan decide the case from the bench.