In key decision, Van Dyke will have jurors — not judge — decide his fate
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Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke is proceeding with a jury trial rather than having the judge alone decide his murder case — a key strategic choice early in the trial.
The jury of four men and eight women are expected to hear opening statements on Monday morning. Based on their physical appearance, the jury is made up of seven white people, one African-American woman, an Asian man and three Latinos — one of whom is a young woman who recently took the first in a series of tests to become a Chicago police officer.
The decision to try the case in front of a jury bucks conventional wisdom that police officers accused of wrongdoing are assumed to have a more sympathetic audience in a bench trial at the Leighton Criminal Courthouse. But the racial and political dynamics of Van Dyke’s case seem to have altered that calculus: Van Dyke, who is white, is charged with the 2014 murder of black teenager Laquan McDonald, and key evidence is dashboard camera video that showed Van Dyke shooting the 17-year-old 16 times.
That video stirred protests when it was released in late 2015 and is credited for unseating former State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez in her reelection bid the following spring. The fallout likewise battered the reputation of Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who announced earlier this month he will not seek re-election.
Legal analysts have speculated that a bench trial in this case would likely have meant a conviction on at least one of the 23 counts Van Dyke was facing, though likely a lesser charge than first-degree murder.
But what a jury of lay people might decide is more unpredictable: the shocking video might overwhelm legal arguments that favor police officers involved in violent encounters, or jurors might balk at sending a cop to prison. Even one sympathetic juror could hold out for acquittal and force a mistrial.
Van Dyke’s decision for a jury trial likely means the trial, expected to last two or three weeks, will run longer than it would if Cook County Judge Vincent Gaughan was deciding the case. But it also means the trial could be livelier, as attorneys on both sides will look to score points with jurors, rather than make dry, legal arguments to the judge alone.
On Friday, Gaughan rejected a request by the defense to strike the full panel of jurors because of possible intimidation they endured while walking past protesters outside the courthouse when they reported for jury duty.
When some 200 jurors first showed up, they only slightly outnumbered by the small crowd of protesters on hand. While organizers have secured permits for daily demonstrations on the boulevard outside the courthouse for each day of the trial, on Friday morning, there were about four protesters out in front.
Assistant Special Prosecutor Joe Cullen argued that no jurors who were seated have said they were intimidated by the “peaceful protesters” outside the courtroom.
Gaughan said he would put off until Monday a final ruling on the defense’s months-old request to move the case out of the county. The judge said he would wait to make his ruling on the venue change until after he had sworn the full jury Monday morning –– at which point Van Dyke’s lawyers would need the judge to agree if they opted to dismiss the jury and have Gaughan decide the case.
The judge, who presided over the trial of R&B star R. Kelly’s 2008 child pornography trial, is almost certain to nix the request, given that during three days of jury selection this week, lawyers on both sides had settled on 12 people and five alternates who said they could give Van Dyke a fair trial.