A judge will decide next week whether Jason Van Dyke lands in jail for giving press interviews just days ahead of his trial for the murder of Laquan McDonald.
At a rare Saturday hearing at the Leighton Criminal Court Building, Judge Vincent Gaughan said he would hold off on ruling on whether to take Van Dyke into custody for violating the judge’s “decorum order” barring Van Dyke and others involved in the case from talking publicly.
Gaughan set a hearing for Thursday — the day after jury selection is set to begin — on Special Prosecutor Joseph McMahon’s request to revoke Van Dyke’s $1.5 million bond. The judge also ruled that once the murder trial is over, Van Dyke will have a separate hearing on a potential contempt of court charge.
In court on Saturday, Assistant Special Prosecutor Joseph Cullen called the interviews a pre-trial “media blitz” that defied a court order intended to tamp down publicity surrounding the high-profile case.
“If a decorum order is in place to prevent parties from trying case in the press in a high-publicity case like this, it is appropriate,” Cullen said. “Nothing could be more clear with the media blitz the defense has been on for the past few days.”
Van Dyke’s lawyer, Daniel Herbert, said Van Dyke had been the subject of negative news coverage since charges were announced against the veteran officer in November 2015.
“There have been thousands and thousands and thousands of stories written about Jason Van Dyke, all of them negative,” Herbert said. “To submit that this so-called ‘media blitz’ . . . has unleveled the playing field against them is . . . preposterous.”
Herbert also said Van Dyke had a First Amendment right to talk about the case, and hinted that his client was afraid he might not live through the end of the trial.
“He might not make it to trial,” Herbert said. “The threats out there are real. He’s afraid for his safety.”
Gaughan quickly ruled that a hearing on the contempt charge — a case that could require another jury trial — would wait until after the McDonald case concludes, but said he would have to weigh the implications of revoking Van Dyke’s bond ahead of the trial.
The First Amendment argument, and Herbert’s statements about the threats against Van Dyke’s life, did not seem to sway the judge. Gaughan pointed out that Herbert could have asked the judge to allow Van Dyke to speak publicly about the case at any time after the decorum order was entered in 2015, and Herbert’s statements of concern for Van Dyke’s safety could have “unintended consequences.”
“What you’re trying to say is I should take your client into protective custody,” Gaughan cautioned.
Gaughan said he would weigh his decision on Van Dyke’s bond, and specifically was concerned about the implications of Van Dyke making public statements when he could also testify during the trial.
The courtroom gallery was largely empty Saturday, with a few rows behind Van Dyke and his lawyers filled by his father and current and past officers from the Fraternal Order of Police. While that contingent of supporters is present at nearly every hearing in the case, Van Dyke’s wife on Saturday also attended the hearing.
In Van Dyke’s two interviews, which were supervised by his lawyers, he did not describe details of the McDonald shooting, or why he fired 16 shots at the teen in October 2014. Most of his statements focused on his anxiety as the trial approached and his concerns about the “band wagon of hatred” on social media.
It was not clear whether Gaughan will agree with prosecutors’ contention that the statements discussed evidence or testimony that is likely to be part of the trial — topics which Gaughan’s order strictly prohibits potential witnesses and law enforcement officials from talking about publicly.
McMahon also has given a handful of press interviews ahead of the trial, including one for an article published Thursday in the Chicago Sun-Times. McMahon’s public comments have dealt with the case in fairly oblique terms, calling the case “important” and saying he was “excited to put the case in front of the jury.”
Van Dyke’s lawyers have tried to have the trial moved out of Cook County, pointing to a public opinion survey they commissioned that 75 percent county residents polled said they think Van Dyke is guilty of murder. Gaughan in July said he would not rule on their motion to move the trial until after the start of jury selection, and presumably only would grant their request if they are unable to find 12 jurors who purport to be able to be fair.