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Judge considers jailing Chicago policeman for giving newspaper interview before his murder trial

Judge considers jailing Chicago policeman for giving newspaper interview before his murder trial
Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke speaks with reporters at his lawyer's office on Aug. 28. (Brian Cassella / Chicago Tribune)

A judge held off on deciding whether he will jail Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke for giving the Chicago Tribune an interview just days before the start of his murder trial.

Judge Vincent Gaughan, holding a rare Saturday hearing that on occasion turned contentious, could rule Thursday on the request by Kane County State’s Atty. Joseph McMahon, who was appointed special prosecutor in the fatal shooting of black teenager Laquan McDonald.

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Van Dyke’s trial begins Wednesday on charges of murder for shooting McDonald 16 times in October 2014. The court-ordered release in November 2015 of video showing Van Dyke opening fire within seconds of exiting his squad car as the 17-year-old McDonald walked down the street holding a knife sparked months of protests and political upheaval.

At his interview with the Tribune on Tuesday, Van Dyke brought copies of his commendations, suggested he was a political scapegoat and decried “the bandwagon of hatred” on social media. He acknowledged a pressing desire to challenge the image many paint of him as a racist, trigger-happy cop who was indifferent to taking the life of a 17-year-old.

“I pray every day” for McDonald’s family, said Van Dyke, who is Roman Catholic. “I offer up a rosary every day.”

Prosecutors had sought to have Van Dyke held in contempt of court and jailed, saying the officer’s comments violated the judge’s long-standing “decorum order” forbidding those involved in the case from speaking out publicly.

But Saturday, prosecutors said it would be more appropriate to delay the contempt hearing until after trial, raising questions about why they then called for the unusual weekend court session.

Gaughan agreed but then heard arguments on whether he should revoke or raise Van Dyke’s $150,000 bail. Either action could result in his jailing.

Joseph Cullen, a member of the special prosecution team, urged Gaughan to revoke or raise Van Dyke’s bail, citing the officer’s “media blitz” just days from jury selection in his trial.

“The defendant has violated [the judge’s] order by providing an interview to the Chicago Tribune reporters, and then after we actually typed up and were ready to file the motion to increase bond, the defendant doubled down on that by giving a television interview,” Cullen said in reference to Van Dyke’s Wednesday interview with the Chicago-area Fox affiliate.

Van Dyke’s lead attorney, Daniel Herbert, accused prosecutors of engaging in their own “media blitz” and argued that the 1st Amendment protected Van Dyke’s right to speak out.

“There has been thousands and thousands and thousands of stories written about Jason Van Dyke, and all negative,” he said. “…The playing field has been unlevel against Jason Van Dyke at every stage in this case.”

Besides, Herbert said, Van Dyke simply spoke about his feelings at an extraordinarily stressful time for him.

“He’s living it every single day. He’s scared to death,” he said. “He might not make it to trial. The threats out there are real. He is scared for his safety.”

Coming from the suburbs, the team of special prosecutors may not fully appreciate the threat to Van Dyke, Herbert said — a remark that prompted Cullen to roll his eyes before objecting.

Gaughan sustained the objection and warned of “unintended consequences.”

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“What you’re saying is I should take your client into custody because he’s in danger for his life,” the judge said.

The hearing started acrimoniously as Gaughan castigated Herbert for failing to file his written response to the special prosecutor’s contempt request with the circuit clerk’s office. The defense didn’t have the response ready to file until Saturday when the clerk’s office was closed.

Gaughan also threatened Saturday to hold Herbert in contempt for suggesting that the judge had been communicating with prosecutors in secret about scheduling the weekend hearing.

The judge called the accusation “disgusting and insulting” and ordered Herbert to sit down at that point.

On Thursday, McMahon announced his provocative decision asking the court to hold Van Dyke in contempt and revoke or increase his bail. In the court filings, he singled out a dozen comments made by Van Dyke in his interview Tuesday with a Tribune reporter.

Gaughan has been unusually strict in controlling the dissemination of information about the case. He has regularly held lengthy discussions with lawyers behind closed doors and emptied his courtroom of spectators and reporters for several recent hearings.

Van Dyke has been free on bond since late November 2015 when his family posted the necessary $150,000 to win his release after he spent six nights in custody.

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