GLOSSARY: Key legal terms in the trial of Jason Van Dyke
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The trial against Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke for the murder of Laquan McDonald began Sept. 5. Here are some key concepts and phrases likely to come up during the trial:
Batson motion: This could come up during jury selection, especially in a racially charged case like Van Dyke’s. Potential jurors may not be dismissed from the jury pool simply because of their race, according to the U.S. Supreme Court. When a party in a case makes a Batson motion — an allegation that race was the reason for a juror’s dismissal — the other side must offer a race-neutral explanation.
Bench trial: As Van Dyke’s trial neared, lawyers and court personnel prepared as though Van Dyke would be tried in front of a jury. But some legal experts expect he may eventually waive his right to a jury and choose a bench trial. In a bench trial, the presiding judge decides if the defendant is guilty.
Beyond a reasonable doubt: Prosecutors must prove Van Dyke guilty beyond a reasonable doubt to secure a conviction. While there is no precise definition, it is the highest standard of proof in any case.
Change of venue/Change of place: Illinois law says “a defendant may move the court for a change of place of trial on the ground that there exists in the county in which the charge is pending such prejudice against him on the part of the inhabitants that he cannot receive a fair trial in such county.” Van Dyke sought a change of place based on a “massive flood of local pretrial publicity,” but prosecutors argued any prejudice could be weeded out during voir dire — the questioning of potential jurors.
Decorum Order: Judge Vincent Gaughan has entered several so-called decorum orders governing behavior in his courtroom. On Feb. 3, 2017, he also entered an order declaring that, “any documents or pleadings filed in this matter are to be filed in room 500 of the George N. Leighton Criminal Courthouse only,” rather than in the office of the circuit court clerk. This prevented documents from becoming publicly accessible. The Illinois Supreme Court ordered Gaughan on May 11, 2018, to vacate that order, insisting that all documents be filed in the clerk’s office. Attorneys may still ask for individual documents to be sealed.
Directed verdict: Van Dyke’s lawyers may ask the judge for a directed verdict, likely after the prosecution rests, arguing that no reasonable jury could find the defendant guilty based on the evidence presented. Judges rarely hand down such verdicts in jury trials.
For cause: One of two ways a potential juror could be dismissed from the Van Dyke jury pool is for cause. If a potential juror is dismissed for cause, that person has demonstrated an unwillingness or inability to be fair and impartial.
Forcible felony: Whether McDonald committed a forcible felony before he was fatally shot by Van Dyke could be a key part of Van Dyke’s defense. Under Illinois law, forcible felony “means treason, first degree murder, second degree murder, predatory criminal sexual assault of a child, aggravated criminal sexual assault, criminal sexual assault, robbery, burglary, residential burglary, aggravated arson, arson, aggravated kidnapping, kidnapping, aggravated battery resulting in great bodily harm or permanent disability or disfigurement and any other felony which involves the use or threat of physical force or violence against any individual.”
Garrity: Prosecutors cited this legal principle in 2015 to explain why it took so long to charge Van Dyke with a crime. If a police officer is required to make a statement during an administrative proceeding under the threat of discipline, that statement may not be used against the officer in a criminal trial, according to the U.S. Supreme Court. To police officers, this is a fundamental right. However, it is also a complicating factor for prosecutors seeking to bring criminal charges against a police officer. To avoid violating officers’ Garrity rights, prosecutors can assemble a so-called “taint team” to weed Garrity-protected statements out of the potential evidence. The remaining evidence is then turned over to a trial team, which has not viewed the protected statements.
Lynch: Van Dyke’s legal team hopes to call so-called “Lynch” witnesses to the stand to testify about McDonald’s “propensity for violence” and bolster a claim of self-defense. Under the Illinois Supreme Court decision People v. Lynch, a claim of self-defense can be supported with character evidence if the defendant knew of a victim’s past violent behavior, or if there are conflicting accounts of the central incident in the case.
Peremptory challenge: One of two ways a potential juror can be dismissed from the Van Dyke jury pool is through a peremptory challenge. Typically, each side has a limited number of peremptory challenges that may be used for any reason as long as they are not used to discriminate against a juror based on race, gender, ethnicity or religion.
Venire: The panel of potential jurors from which the final Van Dyke jury will be selected.
Voir Dire: The process of questioning potential jurors and choosing the final jury.