Will Chicago riot? Hoping to move trial, Van Dyke’s lawyer raises possibility

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Protesters from the Revolution Club march and chant outside the Leighton Criminal Courthouse while jury selection is underway in the Jason Van Dyke trial, Monday morning. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

The question has been on the minds of many as Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke faces trial this month for the shooting death of Laquan McDonald: What happens if he’s acquitted?

This week, Van Dyke’s lawyers put their prediction on paper — and squarely in front of Judge Vincent Gaughan — as they continue to insist Van Dyke’s trial should leave Cook County.

“It is abundantly clear that the community will riot if Van Dyke is not found guilty,” defense attorney Dan Herbert wrote in a court filing this week.

Van Dyke’s defense on Tuesday added even more details to their argument that the trial needs to be moved. In yet another motion, they note they received an email from a woman saying her husband reported for jury duty Monday, complaining about Van Dyke protesters outside the courthouse.

It was not clear if the man was a prospective juror in Van Dyke’s case, but the email said he was handed a leaflet titled “The Murderer of Laquan McDonald Must Not Walk Free” that said a not-guilty verdict for Van Dyke would be a “green light for genocide.” In an unusual twist, the defense attached a copy of the woman’s email with its motion and redacted the woman’s email address but in an apparent slip-up, not her name and phone number.

The trial judge has set strict penalties for revealing the last names of potential jurors.

The defense motions follow a large, but peaceful, protest last week outside the Leighton Criminal Court Building on the first day of Van Dyke’s trial, and a much smaller one Monday. While jurors may have seen signs calling Van Dyke “Guilty of Racist Murder,” one legal expert told the Chicago Sun-Times that Herbert’s riot comments raise “unnecessary hysteria.”

A woman chosen for Van Dyke’s jury has said the protest didn’t faze her.

“I did just see it,” the woman said during jury selection Monday. “But I didn’t pay attention to the signs.”

Still, that’s one juror out of 12. Herbert argues the police presence around protesters raises the specter of violence in jurors’ minds.

“The barricades were undoubtedly seen as a way to protect the jurors from the violence and threats by the protestors,” Herbert wrote. “These jurors understand that when they return home after a verdict there will not be barricades in front of their homes. There will not be dozens of armed law enforcement officers present.

“They will be alone, vulnerable and no doubt terrified.”

William Calloway, the community organizer who secured a city permit for the protest, called Herbert’s riot argument “incorrect and misleading.” He said the demonstrators “have been promoting peace and non-violence since the trial has started,” and he said they’ve “never attempted to influence any juror and never will.”

If Van Dyke is acquitted, Calloway said he is “calling for a massive uprising in the city of Chicago — but not a riot.”

In his latest motion, Herbertcomplains that Calloway sat in during the interviews of several jurors on Monday, and that anyone who recognized the activist might recall he had referred to Van Dyke publicly as a “racist murderer.”

Herbert’s arguments are part of Van Dyke’s long-standing request to move the trial out of Cook County because of the saturation of publicity. Gaughan has said he won’t rule on the request until he has questioned potential jurors. So far, five jurors have been picked, and selection resumes Wednesday.

Defense attorney Joseph “The Shark” Lopez acknowledged the riot argument in Herbert’s filing is unusual, but he noted, “Van Dyke’s an unusual case.” He said Herbert was highlighting a “very highly prejudicial issue” and an “external threat” to the jurors’ fairness.

Lawyer Antonio Romanucci said there’s still an “extremely strong possibility” that Van Dyke waives his right to a jury trial and asks the judge to decide the case.

Still, Romanucci said Herbert was “creating absolutely unnecessary hysteria among the city of Chicago and its citizens” with his prediction of a riot. For one thing, if the threat of a riot is real, Romanucci said that threat exists whether Van Dyke goes to trial “in Chicago or Moline or Carbondale.”

Both Romanucci and Lopez expressed faith in the jury system. Lopez said it’s still possible for Van Dyke to get a fair trial. And Romanucci said jurors take their job seriously.

He said, “You’re not dealing with one juror here, you’re dealing with 12.”

And when dealing with 12, he said, “you are dealing with a super computer.”

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