Prosecutors allowed to view statements by officers at Laquan McDonald shooting

Special prosecutors can view statements given by five Chicago police officers who were on the scene when Laquan McDonald was fatally shot by Officer Jason Van Dyke, a Cook County judge ruled Friday.

Judge Vincent Gaughan also decided that the special prosecutors can look at the written reports authored by Van Dyke just after the 2014 shooting.

Gaughan's ruling applied only to what the special prosecutor's team can use for their investigation of the high-profile case, not to what may be presented as evidence at a trial.

At issue were statements that Van Dyke and other officers were required to give to the Independent Police Review Authority, which investigates allegations of officer misconduct, shortly after Van Dyke shot McDonald 16 times. Under a decades-old legal standard, statements that government employees are forced to give under threat of being fired cannot be used in criminal proceedings against them.

But that rule only protects the person who gave the statement, prosecutors argued. They conceded that anything Van Dyke told city investigators could not be used against him but said the other officers' statements should be fair game.

Otherwise, it "would essentially allow a police officer to get away with any kind of crime he wants, as long as the only witness (is) a sworn police officer," said Joseph Cullen, a Kane County assistant state's attorney who is part of the special prosecution team brought in to handle the case.

Van Dyke's attorney, Daniel Herbert, argued that such statements should be off-limits altogether.

"When a police officer or anyone else provides immunized testimony, the effect is that the state can't look at that evidence, they can't use that evidence," Herbert told the judge.

Gaughan disagreed, ruling that the statements of the five police officers could be used "as an investigative tool."

"The defense contention (is) that that has to be put in a lockbox, and then the investigation has to go forward without that. I find that is not my interpretation," the judge said. "The state could use those immunized statements as investigative clues or in their investigation."

Van Dyke's written police reports cannot be subject to those protections either, Gaughan held.

If prosecutors were forbidden access to written police reports, the judge said, "this whole system would collapse."

It wasn't clear which five officers' statements were at issue because motions on the issue have not been made public — highly unusual ordinarily, but not for Gaughan, whose penchant for secrecy has kept much of the details of the case hidden from public view.

The statements given by officers who witnessed the shooting differed sharply from what the video showed. The officers generally contended that the knife-wielding McDonald posed a threat to police, but police dashboard-camera video showed Van Dyke opening fire within seconds of exiting his squad car as McDonald was walking away from him.

Attorneys also argued over access to statements given by Van Dyke to Detective David March and Deputy Chief David McNaughton in the immediate aftermath of the shooting.

McNaughton, the highest-ranking officer at the scene of McDonald's shooting, wrote in a report the following day that the shooting was justified, records show. March, the lead detective, found that Van Dyke was justified in killing McDonald.

The Office of the Inspector General recommended that both be fired, but March resigned and McNaughton retired before those steps could be taken.

Gaughan said he wanted to hear testimony from March and McNaughton at a hearing later this month to determine if Van Dyke's statements to them are subject to the same protections as the statements he gave to IPRA investigators.

The video of Van Dyke, a white police officer, shooting McDonald, a black teenager, sent shockwaves through Chicago when it was released on the same day in November 2015 that Van Dyke was charged with first-degree murder.

mcrepeau@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @crepeau

Copyright © 2017, The Virginia Gazette
61°