Jury Selection Begins in Trial of Jason Van Dyke, Chicago Police Officer Who Fatally Shot Laquan McDonald in 2014

FILE – In this Thursday, Sept. 6, 2018, file photo, Chicago police Officer Jason Van Dyke, charged with murder in the shooting of black teenager Laquan McDonald in 2014, listens during a hearing at the Leighton Criminal Court Building in Chicago. Attorneys are expected to start questioning possible jurors in Van Dyke’s trial on Monday, Sept. 10, 2018. (Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune via AP, Pool, File)

Lawyers for Jason Van Dyke have insisted for months that it would be impossible to find impartial Cook County jurors to try the Chicago police officer for the 2014 slaying of Laquan McDonald.

But as the first day of questioning drew to a close Monday, five jurors had already been selected and sworn in — despite the defense team’s insistence that the judge was too readily accepting potential jurors who indicated a bias.

The five jurors include a stay-at-home mother, a financial analyst, a record keeper, a Navy wife and an older man whose church has encouraged its members to speak with black people about their experiences with racial injustice.

Each acknowledged knowing something about the case, but all promised they could give the embattled officer a fair trial based solely on the evidence heard in court.

The individual questioning began in earnest Monday at the Leighton Criminal Court Building after a pool of about 200 potential jurors completed an extensive questionnaire last week. Jury selection is slated to continue until 12 regular jurors and four alternates have been chosen.

Out of the 19 people interviewed Monday, 10 were removed for cause, including several who said they could not be fair to Van Dyke.

Van Dyke’s defense team is taking a risk by electing to have a jury decide the officer’s fate, rather than follow the pattern of most officers indicted in Cook County who had the judge hear the case.

As tensions between Judge Vincent Gaughan and the defense team mounted Monday, Van Dyke’s lead attorney, Daniel Herbert, hinted that their frustration over the way the judge was handling the questioning of the jury pool could prompt them to seek a bench trial after all.

Under Illinois law, Van Dyke can unilaterally switch to a bench trial at any point before the 12th juror is sworn in. But once the jury has been impaneled, the defense would need Gaughan’s approval to make the change. But that seems unlikely after the months of work toward a jury trial by the judge and others.

In their testiest exchange of the day, Herbert accused the judge of “rehabilitating” jurors too easily — meaning Gaughan accepted their promises to be fair after they already indicated they may have a bias.

“If we are going to continually allow people to be rehabilitated, then we are going to have a discussion about whether or not it’s even prudent to go forward with this,” Herbert said.

The judge, who had sparred with the defense repeatedly during the day and accused Van Dyke’s team of having “starting line jitters” at one point, reacted angrily to the thinly veiled suggestion.

“You’re not threatening me,” said Gaughan, ordering Herbert to make his decision on switching to a bench trial by Tuesday. The trial will not be in session Tuesday, however.

By Monday’s end, the jury deciding the racially charged case — Van Dyke is white and McDonald was black — had three white members, one Asian-American man and one Hispanic woman.

Prosecutors used just one of their seven “peremptory” challenges to remove potential jurors without needing to give a reason, booting a man who keeps a “thin blue line” bumper sticker on his car to show support for police. He hesitated at length when asked if he could be fair to both sides, ultimately answering that he would do his best.

By contrast, Van Dyke’s attorneys have already used three of their strikes, two of them on African-Americans. They also rejected a Latina woman whose boyfriend, they believed, had a criminal record.

An African-American woman excused by the defense had said she learned while filling out her questionnaire last week that her son had apparently just been shot himself. She said she could be fair to Van Dyke, noting that she believed there are three sides to every story.

Initially, the defense had tried to get her removed for cause, saying she lived on the West Side where the 17-year-old McDonald used to live and has children about McDonald’s age. But Gaughan, who praised the woman’s answers, rejected the request.

Van Dyke’s trial team used its third strike on a black man late Monday who said “only God and Christ should judge” and that it was hard to imagine why someone would shoot the way Van Dyke did.

The officer’s lawyers have previously signaled their concerns about black jurors from Cook County. Based on an internal poll, the defense contended that 98.5 percent of local African-Americans who have seen a video showing Van Dyke shoot the teen 16 times don’t believe the officer was in danger at the time — an opinion that strikes at the heart of Van Dyke’s self-defense argument.

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SOURCE: Chicago Tribune, Megan Crepeau, Stacy St. Clair and Jason Meisner