In a choice with potentially far-reaching consequences for the biggest Cook County murder case in years, Chicago police Officer Jason Van Dyke’s attorney announced Friday that a jury will decide his fate.
The long-awaited decision came just days before opening statements and after 12 jurors and five alternates had already been selected — an extraordinarily late date for such a consequential choice.
Most legal experts expected him to take a bench trial, as most Chicago police officers charged with criminal wrongdoing traditionally have done. Conventional wisdom holds that judges can more easily strip the emotion from such highly charged cases and focus on the complicated legal questions at hand.
Van Dyke, however, presumably saw something in the jurors that suggested he had a better chance of a straight not-guilty verdict with them deciding the case.
“I think he’s looked at his jury, now that they’ve all been picked, and said, ‘I don’t want to do any jail time. I’m going for broke, I’m rolling the dice and I’m going for an acquittal,’ ” Irving Miller, a former Cook County prosecutor and longtime criminal defense attorney, told the Tribune Friday.
Van Dyke is the first Chicago police officer in decades to be charged with murder in an on-duty fatality. Dashboard camera video of him shooting 17-year-old Laquan McDonald 16 times as the teen appeared to walk away from police roiled the city on its court-ordered release more than a year later.
Friday’s announcement would seem to conclude a lengthy legal face-off between the defense and Judge Vincent Gaughan. The judge had delayed ruling on a defense request to move the trial from Chicago until after jury selection. The defense, in turn, postponed its decision on whether to have a jury decide the case at all.
Gaughan continued to hold off ruling Friday on whether to move the trial out of Cook County, saying he would do so after he swore in the 12th juror and five alternates when they return to the courthouse Monday. It appears highly unlikely that Gaughan would agree to move the trial at this point, however.
Under Illinois law, Van Dyke could unilaterally switch to a bench trial at any point before the 12th juror was sworn in. So far, only 11 of the 12 have taken the oath. That means the defense technically could still change course Monday morning.
The decision rested solely with Van Dyke. With this particular burden lifted, Van Dyke — who looked sleep-deprived and often slipped into a thousand-yard stare during jury selection — appeared more relaxed during Friday’s brief hearing. He smiled as he walked into the courtroom and looked better rested than he had in weeks. When court adjourned for the day, he hugged attorney Daniel Herbert and smiled at his father.
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SOURCE: Chicago Tribune, Megan Crepeau, Jason Meisner and Christy Gutowski