More than two years after Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke was charged with the murder of Laquan McDonald, lawyers representing the Sun-Times and seven other local media outlets have petitioned to unseal records in the ongoing case.
A motion filed this week by the group of local media companies, headed by lawyers for the Reporters Committee For The Freedom of the Press, seeks public access to dozens of filings in the case.
Cook County Judge Vincent Gaughan on Thursday granted the group permission to intervene in the case, and ordered Van Dyke’s lawyers and Special Prosecutor Joseph McMahon to prepare an agreed order spelling out which records in the case should remain under seal.
The judge’s ruling came, ironically, after a half-hour session behind the closed doors of his chambers with lawyers for the news organizations, defense team and prosecutors.
Since the Van Dyke case first arrived on Gaughan’s docket, the veteran judge has kept an exceptionally tight rein on courtroom proceedings and the filings going back and forth in the case.
Under conditions of a “decorum order” laid down by the judge, no parties to the case are allowed to talk about the case outside courtroom proceedings. Motions and other filings are filed and stored in the judge’s chambers, and the judge’s fifth-floor offices also host off-the-record, closed-door meetings with lawyers in the case that typically take place before hearings in the case.
Gaughan, who presided over the high-profile trials of R&B singer R. Kelly and the equally sensational case against two men accused of murder in the Brown’s Chicken massacre, has said the precautions are necessary to protect Van Dyke’s right to a fair trial.
But blanket denial of access to court records violates the First Amendment, according to the motion filed by the news organizations.
“But the way to protect fair trial rights is not presumptive denial of access, or presumptive denial of news coverage, where alternative measures are fully available to parties to the cases,” the motion states.
Attorney Brendan Healey, representing the Reporters Committee, declined to comment after the hearing.
A phalanx of reporters, as well as photographers and TV camera crews, have been present in the jury box for every hearing in the case – a rare sign of the sustained attention the Van Dyke case continues to receive years after the city released video of the 17-year-old McDonald being felled by a 16-shot volley fired by Van Dyke in 2014.
Gaughan has not yet ruled on whether he will allow cameras in the courtroom during the trial, though he has discussed technical arrangements with reporters. A motion by Van Dyke’s lawyers to move the trial to a venue outside Cook County still is pending.
The release of the video, the motion points out, led to widespread protests across the city in 2015, demonstrations that prompted Mayor Rahm Emanuel to fire his police chief and which likely cost then State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez her bid for reelection.
The issue of transparency was central to the controversy that surrounded the shooting: city officials for years refused to release dashboard camera video, and the City Council signed off on a $5 million settlement with McDonald’s family before they had even filed a lawsuit.