By Erick Johnson
Amidst a media circus and crowds of protesters, the trial of Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke got underway Wednesday, September 5 with jury selection. Some 200 people were summoned as part of the process where 12 jurors will decide the fate of a cop who killed 17-year Laquan McDonald by shooting him 16 times.
It was a busy day at the Leighton Criminal Courthouse at 26th and California, where nearly 200 protestors demonstrated on the first day of what will be a protracted legal battle where police misconduct is in the national spotlight.
Before crowds of protesters swelled to a restricted, barricaded area Van Dyke arrived at the courthouse at around 7:30 wearing a beige suit over a bullet proof vest. He was accompanied by Fraternal Order of Police President Kevin Graham and Martin Preib, vice president of the FOP.
On the first day of jury selection, the large pool of 190 potential jurors completed a questionnaire before they were sent home and told to return to court on Monday, September 10. Prosecutors and Van Dyke’s defense lawyers will review the answers of the potential jurors, who individually, will face Judge Vincent Gaughan for a one-on-one questioning.
It’s a process that both sides will use to select 12 jurors, whom they hope will be impartial and help provide a fair trial for the prosecutors and the defense, specifically Van Dyke.
Juror candidates are Cook County residents whose names were pulled from voter registration rolls, lists of driver licenses and state ID cards and unemployment and disability rolls.
Van Dyke’s attorney, Daniel Herbert, during pre-trial hearings has argued vehemently about his client’s right to a fair trial in light of an overwhelming amount of media publicity surrounding the McDonald case. He filed a motion to relocate the trial to either Lake or Kane county, arguing that a significant number of residents in those counties have not been exposed to media coverage, unlike their Cook County counterparts. According to statistics conducted by a researcher hired by the defense, three quarters of Cook County residents believe that Van Dyke is guilty of using excessive force in killing McDonald.
Gaughan said he will decide on whether to move the trial out of the city after jurors have been selected for the proceedings.
With Chicago’s history of clearing police officers accused of misconduct, demonstrators expressed skepticism that Van Dyke will eventually be convicted of first-degree murder and put behind bars.
“My concern is that it’s (police shootings) are going to keep happening,” said Yvonne Matthews, 37, who lives on the West Side. “I see this all the time in my community and I’m tired of it.”
Asked whether justice will be served in the Van Dyke case, Matthews said, “I’m praying. I’m praying. The way Chicago is set up, I don’t think he will be convicted. If we keep applying pressure, something is going to happen. He needs to do some type of time.”
Matthews says Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s decision to not seek a third term makes the McDonald case easier to bear. But Matthews also said the mayor escaped justice by “taking the easy way out.”
“I don’t think him not seeking re-election is going to change anything unless we get a mayor who is for the people and not for the police department.”
Dozens of interested people stood in line outside Gaughan’s courtroom, hoping to get a seat on the first day of the proceedings. With a seating capacity of only 144, they had to be turned away to make room for the 200 potential jurors, members of the media and several spectators.
On Thursday, Gaughan was expected to rule on a motion by prosecutors to either increase or revoke Van Dyke’s $1.5 million bond after he gave interviews to the Chicago Tribune and Fox 32. Van Dyke could be put in jail if Gaughan says he violated his bond.