Chicago police Officer Jason Van Dyke walks to the judge’s bench at the start of the hearing on the shooting death of Laquan McDonald at the Leighton Criminal Court Building on Aug. 20, 2018. (Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune)
By: Stacy St. Clair | Contact Reporter
Special prosecutors in Chicago police Officer Jason Van Dyke’s upcoming murder trial indicated Monday they will grant immunity from prosecution to several undisclosed officers in an effort to compel their testimony.
It’s unclear which officers might be called by prosecutors because Cook County Judge Vincent Gaughan has sealed most of the key records in the high-profile case, including witness lists. But it’s likely they are officers who were at the scene the night Van Dyke fatally shot 17-year-old Laquan McDonald on the Southwest Side.
Three of those officers, including Joseph Walsh, Van Dyke’s partner that night, face a separate trial on charges of covering up the circumstances surrounding the shooting, however.
Van Dyke’s attorneys indicated Monday that they plan to call Walsh during the trial. The judge, however, denied their request to allow Walsh to explain why the shots were legal from their vantage point.
“Not only was Jason Van Dyke justified in shooting, he (Walsh) was justified as well,” said Van Dyke’s lead attorney, Daniel Herbert.
But the judge barred Walsh from giving his legal opinion, saying the defense had not listed him as an expert witness and did not tender any reports suggesting he would be used in that manner.
Gaughan also flippantly suggested that it would be unwise to have Walsh testify as to why it would have been legal for him to have shot McDonald too.
“That’s the easiest cross-examination in the world,” Gaughan said in apparent reference to the fact that Walsh did not open fire at McDonald.
The judge indicated that any officer given both federal and state immunity would be required to testify at Van Dyke’s trial, slated to begin next month.
“If that letter (from the U.S. attorney) is in existence, they will testify,” Gaughan said.
The U.S. attorney’s office declined to comment, but according to prosecutors, federal prosecutors have written a letter indicating they will not prosecute the officers for statements they make at trial.
Walsh’s attorney, Thomas Breen, could not be reached Monday for comment. Lawyers for the three officers charged with covering up the shooting are under a “gag” order prohibiting them from commenting publicly.
Van Dyke was charged with first-degree murder on the same day in November 2015 as the court-ordered release of police dashboard camera video depicting the white officer shooting the black teen 16 times. The footage showed Van Dyke opening fire within seconds of exiting his police SUV as McDonald walked down the street with a knife in his hand — contradicting written reports by Van Dyke and several other officers who contended McDonald lunged at police with the knife.
Both sides will return to court Sept. 4, a day before jury selection is scheduled to begin.
Van Dyke’s attorneys have yet to decide if they will let Gaughan decide Van Dyke’s fate or leave that decision in the hands of a jury.
The defense had sought to have the trial moved out of Cook County, citing what it considered prejudicial news coverage. But Gaughan held off on a decision until after jury selection, hinting he felt confident a fair jury could be found in Cook County.
When newsed by Gaughan on Monday, Van Dyke’s attorneys did not rule out the possibility of still instead opting for a bench trial.