Joe McMahon: The ‘outsider’ who convicted Jason Van Dyke
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Editor’s note: The Sun-Times first published this profile of Van Dyke lead prosecutor Joe McMahon on August 31, 2018, prior to start of the landmark trial.
As many headed away for the long Labor Day weekend, Joe McMahon, the Kane County state’s attorney, had different plans. He was going to be holed up making last-minute preparations for the biggest case of his life — the trial of a white Chicago cop accused of murder in the shooting death of an African-American teenager.
“We’ve been preparing for trial, really, since the day we were appointed,” McMahon says of the day two years ago when he was assigned to handle the prosecution of Officer Jason Van Dyke in the 2014 killing of Laquan McDonald.
As special prosecutor in the case, McMahon, 52, largely has escaped the spotlight during pretrial legal maneuverings, many which have taken place behind closed doors in the chambers of Cook County Circuit Judge Vincent Gaughan.
That’s about to change. Jury selection — if, indeed, Van Dyke chooses to have his peers, rather than the judge, decide his fate — is set to begin Wednesday.
“We’re ready to go,” McMahon says of the task he faces as the first prosecutor in decades to handle the trial of a Chicago police officer charged with an on-duty murder.
Gary Johnson — who was Kane County’s chief prosecutor in 1992 when he hired McMahon out of John Marshall Law School — says, “Nobody in Illinois has seen a case like this. If that’s what you’re judging readiness on, then nobody is ready. But he’s as ready as anybody can be.”
People who have worked beside McMahon — even those on the opposite side in court — describe him as smart, quietly confident and occasionally blunt, a lawyer who avoids courtroom theatrics.
During pretrial hearings, McMahon’s lack of bluster has spared him the rebukes that at times have been issued from Gaughan, a judge known for his stern, quirky, unpredictable courtroom manner.
Tim Mahoney, a Kane County criminal defense lawyer who has known McMahon for years, says the prosecutor is tough to rattle.
“You get up, you object … you’re overstating your objection, you’re entertaining yourself and the judge a little, and [McMahon] is not taking the bait,” Mahoney says.
Johnson likens McMahon to Robert Mueller, the special counsel overseeing the U.S. Justice Department’s investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. “You keep your head down and do your job,” Johnson says of each.
McMahon got the job in the wake of the furor that erupted after the release of a Chicago Police Department dashcam video showing McDonald being shot 16 times. The first-degree murder case against Van Dyke was filed hours before the video become public but a year after the shooting, prompting calls for Mayor Rahm Emanuel and then-Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez to resign.
Community activists wanted an outsider to handle the case.
“We wanted someone independent because prosecutors tend to be beholden to, either explicitly or implicitly, police officers because they rely on police officers so much for the evidence,” says Flint Taylor, one of the city’s most prominent civil rights attorneys. “We were hoping for someone African-American since it’s such an important issue in the African-American community.”
McMahon is white and conservative.
Kane County’s chief prosecutor since 2010, McMahon says the case isn’t about race.
“It’s not about the color of my skin,” says McMahon, who went to Catholic school and, reflecting his conservative views, has, for instance, opposed legalizing the recreational use of marijuana. “It’s not about the color of the skin of the victim or the defendant.”
He says it was his “duty” to take the case. “If not me, who?” he says.
McMahon points out that since he became chief prosecutor in the suburban county, his office has prosecuted a “handful” of cops for misconduct — including one for planting evidence, another for computer tampering.
Before McMahon was called in, at least one other state’s attorney from a neighboring county turned down the offer to prosecute Van Dyke.
Richard Kling, a professor at Chicago-Kent College of Law, thinks he knows why.
“It’s an honor to be requested,” Kling says. “On the other hand, this is a heater case, and I’m prosecuting a police officer, which isn’t the most popular thing for a prosecutor to do.”
McMahon says — and several attorneys who know him well agree — that taking the case had nothing to do with the attention he’d get, though McMahon expressed interest last year in running for Illinois attorney general.
“It wasn’t done for glory, it wasn’t done for fame, it was done because it was the right thing to do,” says Rick Williams, who shared a law practice with McMahon about 10 years ago and also briefly advised him on the potential run for statewide office. “Ultimately, he said it wasn’t the right time and that this case demanded his full attention.”
McMahon has drawn criticism for agreeing to take on the Van Dyke case from Kane County Board Chairman Chris Lauzen, who has questioned whether he is paying enough attention to the job he was elected to do. Long at odds with McMahon, Lauzen asked him to provide a list of the attorneys from his staff working on the Van Dyke case and the number of hours they are spending on it.
McMahon refused, at one point telling Lauzen, “How I run my office is absolutely none of your business,” the Daily Herald reported.
Lauzen told McMahon his refusal was “a personification of arrogance.”
“The criticism has really come from a single person,” McMahon says. “The board members who have communicated with me about this have been overwhelmingly supportive.”
McMahon says the trial preparations have been consuming, often involving 13- and 14-hour days for him and his team.
“It’s whatever it takes,” he says. “Sometimes, those days are very long.”
That’s meant no time for any time away over the long holiday weekend nor even for a quick lunch with Williams, his former law partner.
But McMahon has never lacked endurance. He has run three marathons and competed in two Ironman triathlons. In his down time, friends say, he will have an occasional draft beer or a good bourbon.
McMahon won’t talk about the case against Van Dyke, not even whether he’ll be giving the prosecution’s opening statement. He can’t because of a gag order imposed in the case by the judge.
But, asked whether, two years in, he has any regrets about taking on what’s going to be the most closely watched trial in Illinois since former Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s federal corruption trial, McMahon doesn’t hesitate.
“Absolutely none,” he says. “It’s an important case. I’m excited to put the case on in front of a judge or jury.”