The Chicago police officer charged with first-degree murder in the shooting death of Laquan McDonald entered a not-guilty plea at his arraignment Tuesday.
Jason Van Dyke appeared for the first time in front of Cook County Judge Vincent Gaughan, who was assigned to hear his case. His lawyer, Daniel Herbert, entered the plea at a brief hearing, notable primarily for the crush of reporters and a television camera present in the courtroom.
Van Dyke, 37, posted the required 10 percent of a $1.5 million bond and was freed from Cook County Jail last month. He was indicted earlier this month on six counts of first-degree murder and one count of official misconduct for fatally shooting McDonald.
Gaughan, a former public defender, has heard many of the county’s most high-profile criminal cases, including the 2008 trial of singer R. Kelly, who was acquitted of child pornography charges, and the trials of James Degorski and Juan Luna, both convicted of the 1993 mass murder of seven people at a Brown’s Chicken.
The longtime judge is known for keeping an especially tight rein on his courtroom, which during the R. Kelly trial meant numerous closed-door meetings with attorneys that remained secret, over media objections, until the trial ended. He traveled years ago to California to learn from court officials there how they handled the onslaught of public and media attention during the Michael Jackson molestation trial. He said repeatedly in the run-up to the R. Kelly trial that his primary concern was for a “fair trial” and other concerns are “secondary.”
Although Van Dyke’s attorney has not indicated whether his client will select a jury or bench trial, Chicago police officers have historically chosen to have their cases directly heard by a judge, which would place Gaughan in a crucial role.
On Tuesday, Van Dyke answered “here” when his name was called and walked before Judge LeRoy Martin Jr., the presiding judge at the Leighton Criminal Court Building. Martin instructed a clerk to run Van Dyke’s name through a program to randomly assign his case to a trial judge. A few seconds later, the clerk said Gaughan’s courtroom had been selected.
There was a brief recess while Van Dyke consulted with Herbert before they returned to the bench and told Martin they would remain with Gaughan as the trial judge. All defendants have the option to have their case reassigned once to another judge.
Gaughan met with Herbert and prosecutors in chambers for about 17 minutes to discuss how the case will move forward.
“My plan is, we’re going to do this like the other high-profile cases,” said Gaughan, once he and the attorneys had returned to the courtroom. There will be regular court appearances, as well as in-chambers meetings with the attorneys, he said.
The judge’s six-year term expires next year, meaning he would need approval from 60 percent of voters to keep his seat on the bench. The retention vote is likely to happen before Van Dyke’s trial — first-degree murder cases rarely go to trial in Cook County within a year.
Gaughan, who has been on the bench since 1991, was most recently recommended for retention in 2010 by the Judicial Performance Commission of Cook County, which cited his smarts and case-management skills but noted “criticism with regard to his temper, particularly as directed toward attorneys in his courtroom.”
McDonald’s great-uncle Marvin Hunter told reporters after court that he was asking for the entire trial to be televised in order to hold public officials accountable.
“We now believe that it would be in the best interest of fairness and justice in this case if it was televised from gavel to gavel because we really believe that there is a culture in the county of Cook, with the Police Department and the criminal justice system, where police feel comfortable with murdering African-American people,” Hunter said.
He said the shootings last weekend of Quintonio LeGrier, 19, and his 55-year-old neighbor Bettie Jones show Chicago police officers continue to “have some sense of comfortability within yourself to believe you can do this without any kind of recourse.”
Although one judge said Tuesday’s hearing could be recorded, the arraignment was not documented by the sole cameraman present, apparently because of confusion over whether Gaughan allowed it.
Van Dyke’s attorney told reporters he has no opinion yet on whether the trial should be televised and said he has not yet decided if he will ask that the trial be moved to a location outside Cook County. He had previously said Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s repeated comments about the case and Van Dyke was “Exhibit A” for the need for the change.
Herbert said prosecutors turned over to him today a first batch of evidence in the case, including transcripts and video of the shooting.
“He’s doing OK, he’s hanging in there,” Herbert said of Van Dyke. “He wants his story to get out so that people don’t see him as this coldblooded killer, but that’s what the trial is for.”
The case has created a firestorm after the release last month of a dash-cam video showing Van Dyke shooting McDonald 16 times within seconds of stepping out of his police car as the black teen moved away from the white officer.
Van Dyke’s lawyer has said the veteran officer feared for his life when he shot McDonald on a Southwest Side street in October 2014.
The indictment against Van Dyke marked the first time a Chicago police officer has been charged with first-degree murder for an on-duty fatality in nearly 35 years.
The Police Department suspended Van Dyke without pay after he was charged. Van Dyke had been placed on paid desk duty after the shooting last year.