Our Pledge To You

Chicago

Judge unseals most Jason Van Dyke case records

Chicagoans need to peruse these documents to fully understand what happened and to chart a course toward full reform of the Chicago Police Department.

Cook County Judge Vincent Gaughan. (Nancy Stone/Chicago Tribune, Pool, File)

Cook County Judge Vincent Gaughan on Wednesday ordered the public release of nearly 90 sealed court documents filed in the murder trial of former Chicago police Officer Jason Van Dyke.

Gaughan, however, balked at unsealing a motion by Van Dyke’s lawyers to toss out the case based on allegations of misconduct by prosecutors, and filings that dealt with witnesses who had been called to testify about Laquan McDonald’s troubled past.

In all, Gaughan’s ruling will see the release of 87 court filings in coming days in response to a petition by lawyers representing media organizations, including the Chicago Sun-Times. A ruling on three other documents is set for next month.

Van Dyke is serving a roughly seven-year sentence for second-degree murder and has filed notice that he will appeal.

Gaughan had kept a tight rein on records during the three years it took for the case to go to trial. Most pre-trial hearings began with an off-the-record meeting with the judge and attorneys in Gaughan’s chambers. And Gaughan initially required all documents in the case to be filed under seal until a May 2018 order by the State Supreme Court, issued in response to media groups’ protests, required him to limit the number of documents barred from the public.

At a hearing that spanned three hours Wednesday, Gaughan agreed to release all but a handful of documents — records that could prove interesting. Van Dyke’s lawyers twice filed motions to dismiss the case based on allegations that the state’s attorney’s office, then run by Anita Alvarez, committed misconduct involving the grand jury that handed up an indictment in 2015 that included murder and official misconduct charges.

Alvarez recused the state’s attorney’s office from the case shortly before she left office and Kane County State’s Attorney Joseph McMahon was appointed to prosecute Van Dyke’s case. McMahon, who empaneled a second grand jury that issued a new indictment against Van Dyke in 2017, argued Wednesday in favor of keeping the records sealed.

The courtroom was closed to the public when attorneys argued over the motion two years ago, and Gaughan ruled in favor of prosecutors. Wednesday, the judge said there had been no evidence to prove prosecutorial misconduct.

“Those allegations were not supported in any way,” Gaughan said. “People in the public have a right to some of their reputation.”

Gaughan also refused to unseal records that included excerpts of grand jury testimony, finding that state law mandated that grand jury proceedings remain confidential even after a trial concludes.

Gaughan also denied a request to make public filings regarding witness who had been called by the defense to buttress Van Dyke’s self-defense argument, by testifying about instances in which the 17-year-old McDonald had showed violent tendencies. That list included the teenager’s mother, but before the trial, Gaughan ruled that she did not have to take the stand.

“This (case) is like an emotional scab… common decency says you’re not going to call these people in and open the scab,” Gaughan said.

Gaughan said many of the witnesses lived in the same community as McDonald, and that they could be subject to intimidation if they took the stand for Van Dyke’s defense.