Inside a spare, tense Cook County jury deliberation room, Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke met five of the 12 people Monday who could decide if he murdered 17-year-old Laquan McDonald when he shot him 16 times in 2014.
A gay white man in his 60s who says he’s somehow never seen the McDonald shooting video — which has been viewed by millions.
A stay-at-home Latina mother of three kids — all 10 or under — who says she respects police.
A middle-aged white woman who’s a hospital record keeper and believes in hearing all the evidence before making a decision.
A soft-spoken Asian-American man who’s a financial analyst.
A white woman whose husband is a retired Navy veteran and defense contractor.
All five were picked as jury selection in the highest profile criminal case Chicago has seen in years moved faster than expected Monday. Meanwhile, Van Dyke’s defense team doubled down on their argument that Van Dyke can’t get a fair trial — claiming jurors won’t want to be blamed for rioting if he is acquitted.
Defense attorney Dan Herbert also made a veiled threat to waive Van Dyke’s right to a jury trial, complaining that jurors who have made disqualifying comments in questionnaires were being rehabilitated through questioning by the judge.
Cook County Judge Vincent Gaughan told Herbert, “you’re not threatening me” and later said, “I want your decision tomorrow.”
Herbert did not explicitly say that he was considering going forward with a bench trial.
It’s all happening in an unusual and intimate jury room setting — not in Gaughan’s courtroom — and watched by select members of the media and members of the public, rotating in and out of the room. The judge, defense lawyers, prosecutors and Van Dyke sat around a wooden table littered with legal papers and notepads, with the juror seated at the head of the table.
The process did not reveal jurors’ names, ages or hometowns. A few let slip their occupation — including a teacher, a plumber and a truck driver. Gaughan threatened to fine Van Dyke’s lawyers for accidentally blurting out a juror’s name — $200 for the first offense, $500 for the second.
It was also revealed that jurors could be sequestered, though it wasn’t clear if that would be for the duration of the trial or just deliberations.
Van Dyke’s lawyers filed a motion in July, complaining of media coverage of the shooting and arguing the trial should be moved outside Cook County. In a supplemental motion filed Monday, as jury selection was ongoing, they pointed to protesters who greeted the potential jurors outside the courthouse Wednesday as they reported for jury duty.
The crowd of protesters — barely outnumbering the 200 potential jurors summoned for the case — created a “carnival” atmosphere and likely gave passersby the impression there would be violence if Van Dyke is acquitted, the motion argues.
A smaller group of demonstrators appeared Monday, with the noise from one bullhorn-wielding demonstrator audible in parts of the courthouse, though not in Gaughan’s courtroom. Inside the jury room, the selection process was noteworthy mostly for its speed, moving through 19 potential jurors in about eight hours of questioning. At the current pace, the panel of 12 jurors and four alternates would be seated by the end of the week.
The defense used three of the seven “peremptory challenges” allotted to them to strike from the jury a Latina woman who said she had no opinion on the case, a black man who said he would prefer not to judge another human being because “God and Christ are the judges,” and a black woman with two sons — one of whom she learned had been shot Wednesday as she filled out her juror questionnaire. When Gaughan asked how her son was faring, she replied, “He’s fine.”
Herbert asked the judge to dismiss that woman, noting that she lived on the West Side — where Laquan McDonald grew up. He said one of her sons was 17 — the same age as McDonald when he was shot — and her older son was the same age McDonald would be today.
The woman told Gaughan she felt she could be a fair juror.
“I just say I’m my own person,” she said. “I’ve always said three sides to every story . . . that’s what I teach my kids.”
At least one juror, a white man in his 40s who was dismissed after a brief questioning, made it clear that what he’d seen on the video would make it all but impossible to find Van Dyke not guilty.
“The video doesn’t lie,” he wrote on his questionnaire. “You can spin it anyway you want. Cops think they can do anything they want to do. No accountability. Who watches the cops?”
As the process dragged on, Van Dyke sometimes conferred with his defense team but mostly sat glumly. His lawyers fidgeted in their chairs.
Herbert, in frustration, rubbed his palm against his face.