The Van Dyke judge’s stand against transparency

By gagging lawyers in the case against the police officer who shot Laquan McDonald, Judge Vincent M. Gaughan has done a disservice to the people of Chicago, their police department, the city administration, and the Cook County judiciary.

By gagging lawyers in the Jason Van Dyke case, Judge Vincent M. Gaughan has done a disservice to the people of Chicago, their police department, the city administration, and the Cook County judiciary.Gag order

Gaughan’s restraint on free speech and, secondarily, on newsgathering is ill-considered and ironic, coming as it does in a case where opacity already has exacted a heavy toll on public confidence in local law enforcement.

The usual rationale for gag orders — shielding jurors from prejudicial publicity and protecting the right of the accused to a fair trial — doesn’t apply to this case.

Assuming, as widely anticipated, that Van Dyke waives a jury in favor of a bench trial, there will be no one to shield; if Van Dyke opts for a jury trial, which is highly unlikely, it would be even more unlikely that the lawyers would have anything remotely prejudicial to say.

The danger of prejudicial comments, of course, is greater from the prosecution than from the defense. In this case, however, any prejudicial notion the prosecution might advance would pale alongside the many millions of viewings of the police dash-cam video showing Van Dyke shooting 17-year-old Laquan McDonald 16 times in the back.

Gaughan’s gag order, hence, serves no legitimate end — neither protecting jurors from contamination nor safeguarding Van Dyke’s right to a fair trial — a reality that makes it all the more troubling.

It fuels a perception, widely held especially among African Americans, that the Cook County brand of criminal justice simply can’t be trusted.

Regardless of the degree to which the perception is based on reality, pressure emanating from it in the Van Dyke case ended the tenures of former Chicago Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy and soon-to-be former Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez.

Controversial decisions by various of Gaughan’s fellow judges in the Criminal Division of the Cook County Circuit Court have further fortified the perception — especially the acquittals of Police Commander Glenn Evans on charges that he rammed the barrel of his service weapon down a criminal suspect’s throat, and Officer Dante Servin on involuntary manslaughter changes in the fatal shooting of an unarmed woman.

Related: Why the public doubts Cook County’s brand of justice

The ramifications of the perception were not lost on Presiding Criminal Court Judge Leroy K. Martin Jr., who made a show of having the computer-randomized assignment of the Van Dyke case to a trial judge conducted in open court rather than in the court clerk’s office.

Martin’s objective was to mute any suspicion that the assignment was rigged.

It was a nod to the importance of transparency — a point that seems to have been lost on the judge who drew the assignment.

Rob Warden is co-director of Injustice Watch.