Van Dyke murder trial starts with more drama outside the courtroom than inside
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The phalanx of television cameras and the dozens of protesters may have been the first clue for the nearly 200 potential jurors entering the Leighton Criminal Court Building Wednesday morning that they had been called for no ordinary case.
When Cook County Judge Vincent Gaughan told them they had been called for the trial of Jason Van Dyke, several of them exchanged knowing looks. One gasped. At least one prospective juror, who may not have recognized Van Dyke’s name, showed a glimmer of recognition as Gaughan read off the first charge against Van Dyke: the first-degree murder of Laquan McDonald.
Jurors heard the names of Van Dyke and McDonald nearly two dozen more times in quick succession, as Gaughan read through the full indictment: six counts of first-degree murder in the 2014 shooting of the 17-year-old McDonald, as well as 16 counts of aggravated battery and one count of official misconduct.
And so, the much-anticipated trial began — with common, first-day formalities inside Gaughan’s courtroom. Jurors Wednesday filled out questionnaires and won’t return to the courthouse at 26th and California until Monday. Van Dyke will return to the courthouse Thursday, for a hearing on whether to revoke his bond after he gave interviews to the media last week, a possible violation of Gaughan’s order prohibiting parties to the case from talking to the press.
While Gaughan has tried to keep the publicity from tainting the action inside the courtroom walls, it was clear outside that this was the trial for which Chicago has been bracing. Van Dyke arrived early — about an hour before the scheduled start of the protest — wearing a bulletproof vest and surrounded by supporters, including Fraternal Order of Police President Kevin Graham and courthouse security officers.
In doing so, he successfully dodged more than 150 protesters who would soon gather outside. Police monitored the scene closely, with a half-dozen officers stationed on the roof of the parking ramp across the street. Helicopters circled overhead. Protesters chanted, banged drums, gave speeches and waved signs. Many people entering the courthouse passed at least one sign with the words “Guilty of Racist Murder” over Van Dyke’s photograph.
At the end of the day in the courtroom, Van Dyke’s lawyer Dan Herbert asked that all 200 jurors be dismissed after walking the gantlet of protesters outside the courthouse.
“I walked through a [gantlet],” Herbert said of the protesters, who occupied a fenced area on the boulevard at the center of South California Avenue. “It was almost like spectating at the zoo . . . and the overwhelming theme was ‘this guy is guilty.’”
Gaughan said he was confident he’d be able to screen out biased jurors with an elaborate selection process that is likely to stretch most of next week. The pool of about 190 jurors called for the Van Dyke case was about five times the number that would be summoned for a typical murder trial.
Jurors were packed into the courtroom in two groups, with Van Dyke rising from his seat to greet each group with a “good morning” at the start of each session. Jury selection will begin in earnest next week, when jurors will be interviewed one by one by the judge and attorneys in the case.
Outside, in the grass between California Avenue and California Boulevard, Frank Chapman of the Chicago Alliance Against Racist and Political Oppression monitored the protests. He said the crowd appeared at the courthouse to make sure there’s justice for McDonald.
“The only way he’s going to get justice is if Jason Van Dyke is convicted of the first-degree murder that he committed,” Chapman said. Protest organizers have a permit to demonstrate across from the courthouse every day from 8:30 a.m. to 9 p.m., though most of the crowd had dispersed Wednesday by early afternoon.
Community organizer William Calloway said the protesters’ presence sent the message that, “we did not forget.” He added, “it needs to be noted, if Jason Van Dyke is acquitted, we will organize the most massive demonstration and uprising” the city has ever seen.
“We’re calling everybody,” Calloway said. “Not just the South and West sides, not just the black community, but the city as a whole. We need everybody to come out. This needs to be intergenerational and multiethnic, and we need everybody to come out to demand justice for Laquan McDonald.”
Still, he insisted, “I want it to be peaceful.”
Back inside the courthouse, a mix-up over seats kept members of McDonald’s family out of the courtroom. His mother, Tina Hunter, made it inside, but the Rev. Marvin Hunter, the teen’s great uncle, complained of miscommunication between agencies that left many other family members shut out of a courtroom packed with potential jurors and journalists.
As Tina Hunter took her seat in the courtroom, another woman entered wearing a T-shirt that read “Jason Van Dyke? Murder.” She was quickly escorted out by court security before jurors were brought in. She was allowed to return only after she turned the T-shirt inside-out and put on a sweater.