Chicago Jury Convicted Jason Van Dyke of Second-Degree Murder: Could it be Overturned on Improper Venue Grounds?
written by Amy N. Walendziak
On October 5, 2018, a Chicago jury convicted former police officer Jason Van Dyke of second-degree murder for the fatal shooting of Laquan McDonald in 2014. However, the legal battle surrounding McDonald’s death is far from over, as Van Dyke’s lawyers intend to appeal his conviction. The issue of venue is likely to be appealed in this case.
On October 20, 2014, police officers received a report that someone with a knife was breaking into cars in a parking lot near South Pulaski Road and 41st Street in Chicago, Illinois. Officers pursued 17-year-old Laquan McDonald, who was seen in the location. McDonald allegedly refused to stop when officers ordered him to do so. Officer Van Dyke arrived on the scene, and, within six seconds of his arrival, repeatedly shot McDonald, continuing to shoot after he fell to the ground. Autopsy reports revealed that McDonald was shot sixteen times.
On November 24, 2015, just over a year after the shooting, Van Dyke was charged with first degree murder for killing McDonald in Cook County. On August 3, 2018, Van Dyke’s defense attorney moved for the trial to be held outside of Cook County, arguing that Van Dyke would be unlikely to receive a fair trial because of intense publicity that had surrounded the case. He presented the results of a study by a defense expert indicating that a majority of those polled believed Van Dyke was guilty. The judge delayed ruling on the motion until after jury selection.
The trial took place over four weeks, with jury selection beginning on September 10, 2018. Over the course of two and a half days, 54 potential jurors were questioned. Testimony began on September 17. The prosecution presented its case over four days, and the defense presented its case over five days. Closing arguments took place on October 4, and the jury deliberated from October 4 to October 5. On October 5, the jury returned a verdict, finding Van Dyke guilty of second-degree murder and sixteen counts of aggravated battery with a firearm, and not guilty of official misconduct.
Van Dyke is scheduled to return to court on October 31 for a hearing, during which his attorneys will file post-trial motions and the date for his sentencing will be set. His attorneys have indicated that they intend to appeal his convictions. Given the pre-trial discussions of venue, it is likely that Van Dyke’s attorneys will appeal the judge’s ruling on venue.
Venue for Criminal Trials
In Illinois, criminal prosecutions take place in the county where the crime was committed. A defendant may move to change the venue if “there exists in the county in which the charge is pending such prejudice against him on the part of the inhabitants that he cannot receive a fair trial in such county.” On appeal, a court’s decision to deny a motion for a change of venue will be upheld unless there is an abuse of discretion. When making this determination, appellate courts determine whether the defendant received a “fair and impartial trial” despite any potential for prejudice.
Illinois appellate courts consider many factors when determining whether a defendant faced undue prejudice in a particular county. These factors include the pretrial publicity, specifically the amount of publicity surrounding the case, the time that passed between pre-trial publicity and the start of trial, and the inflammatory nature of any publicity. Given the nature of today’s media, it is difficult to find jurors that have never heard of high-profile cases. It is important to consider other factors in addition to publicity when determining if the defendant received a fair trial.
Appellate courts will also review the selected jurors and the nature of the jury selection. A conviction is unlikely to be reversed based on venue if the jurors unequivocally indicated that they would remain unbiased despite any prior knowledge of the case. Illinois courts have also considered whether the defendant used all of his peremptory challenges. In a similar case involving a murder charge, the court upheld a conviction because the defendant did not exhaust his peremptory challenges.
Venue in this Case
Van Dyke’s lawyers argued that it was impossible for Van Dyke to receive a fair trial in Cook County. After the release of the officer camera video, the trial received a great deal of publicity both within the city, and throughout the country. Further, a defense expert polled potential jurors and found that 74% percent of people polled believe that Van Dyke was guilty.
Prosecutors for the state argued the defense’s study was skewed and offered its own study, indicating that 3.4 million people in the county could serve as unbiased jurors. Additionally, Van Dyke’s attorneys only used five of their peremptory challenges during jury selection, so there were no jurors selected after exhausting peremptory challenges.
The appellate court will have to perform a careful balancing test when determining whether Van Dyke received a fair trial. Given that the defense did not use all of its peremptory challenges, and that jurors indicated that they would remain impartial and listen to the trial evidence, the state will have a strong argument on appeal. However, the defense will likely argue that the type of publicity surrounding this trial is much more prejudicial than past publicity. Several Illinois cases upheld murder convictions in rural towns after local newspapers and media stations covered the trials. Van Dyke’s attorneys will likely distinguish the scope and nature of this case’s publicity from those earlier cases.
While it will likely be some time before an appellate court rules on Van Dyke’s appeal, the issue of venue will be a determining factor in whether Van Dyke’s conviction is upheld.
Andy Grimm, Here are the critical legal questions looming now for Officer Jason Van Dyke, Chi. Sun Times (October 5, 2018).
Judge Delays Ruling on Location of Laquan McDonald Murder Trial, CBS Chi. (August 3, 2018).
Laquan McDonald: A Timline of the Shooting, Fallout, And Officer Van Dyke’s Trial, CBS Chi., (September 4, 2018).
Mitch Smith, ‘We Just Didn’t Buy It’: Jury Was Unswayed by Officer’s Story in Laquan McDonald Case, N.Y Times (October 6, 2018).
Mitch Smith, Timothy Williams, & Monica Davey, Jason Van Dyke Killed Laquan McDonald in 2014. Now Chicago Awaits a Verdict, N.Y. Times (October 4, 2018).
People v. Friday, 598 N.E.2d 302 (1992).
People v. Grover, 417 N.E.2d 1093 (1981).
What You Need to Know About the Jason Van Dyke Trial, NBC Chi. (October 4, 2018).
720 Ill. Comp. Stat. Ann. 5 / 1-6 (West 2013).
725 Ill. Comp. Stat. Ann. 5 / 114-6 (West 1982).