A trial date has been set in the murder trial of Chicago police Officer Jason Van Dyke, nearly four years after teenager Laquan McDonald was shot 16 times in the middle of a South Side street.
Cook County Circuit Court Judge Vincent Gaughan on Tuesday scheduled a trial to begin Sept. 5. The judge has said for months that he had wanted to hold the trial during this summer.
Van Dyke has been charged with first-degree murder in the shooting death of McDonald, 17, who was shot as he walked along Pulaski Road carrying a knife in October 2014.
“Finally,” community activist William Calloway told media following Tuesday’s hearing. “This is what we’ve been praying for, what we’ve been protesting for, what we’ve been demanding for. We got a court date and this man will face justice for what he did to Laquan McDonald.”
Several hearings must be held before a trial can begin, including an Aug. 3 meeting to discuss a defense request for a change of venue. Van Dyke’s attorneys believe a fair trial is impossible before a Cook County jury, arguing locals have been saturated with “blatantly prejudicial” and “inflammatory” media coverage in the years since the shooting.
A defense expert contracted to survey hundreds of county residents found a majority of those familiar with the case believe Van Dyke is guilty of murder.
If the case does remain in Cook County, Van Dyke could instead opt for a bench trial, which would eliminate the jury variable entirely and put his fate in the hands of Judge Gaughan.
“We will get everything done,” Gaughan said, “even if we have to go five days a week to get these preliminary matters out of the way so we will be ready to go to trial on that day.”
The Chicago branch of Black Lives Matter on Monday called for protests at Van Dyke’s hearing after another CPD officer shot and killed a man over the weekend in the South Shore neighborhood. Calloway believes public pressure from that shooting – and skirmishes between protesters and police that followed – precipitated the trial date announcement.
“The odds are in his favor,” he said. “We in the city of Chicago, especially in the black community, need to rise up if this man is acquitted for what he did to Laquan McDonald. We have to rise up in the black community. This man cannot get away with what he did to Laquan McDonald, we won’t allow it.”
With a high likelihood of protests during the trial, Kane County State’s Attorney Joseph McMahon – who is serving as special prosecutor in the case – asked the court for permission to work with law enforcement to figure out how to allow these demonstrations without disrupting the case.
During Tuesday’s hearing, Gaughan also barred Gabriel Fuentes, an attorney representing Chicago Public Media, from speaking during future hearings, citing a series of “gratuitous interruptions” made in recent months.
The judge read off portions of transcripts from May and June hearings where Fuentes objected to a case management session being held in Gaughan’s chambers and told a court officer he had a toothbrush with him, indicating he was prepared to be held in contempt and put in jail.
“These are very unpleasant things for me and they should not be happening in any courtroom,” Gaughan said, adding that his decision was the “least intrusive solution to preserve the dignity and decorum of the court.”
Fuentes is still allowed to be present at hearings and represent his clients, but he may no longer speak in open court during the case. Fuentes had typically served as the voice for his clients at these hearings and has pushed for increased transparency and the release of sealed court documents.
All parties are due back in court for a hearing next week.