CHICAGO — Prosecutors twice on Wednesday accused defense attorneys for Chicago police Officer Jason Van Dyke of purposefully eliminating black jury prospects in the Laquan McDonald case.
The defense team hit back with its own challenge Wednesday afternoon — citing the fact that prosecutors used four of their five peremptory strikes to block white men.
The state’s second accusation came after defense attorneys used a peremptory strike to cut a 22-year-old black man who only answered half the questions on his jury questionnaire and said he read negative Facebook posts calling Van Dyke a murderer.
Prosecutor Dan Weiler said the cut was evidence of a larger pattern of striking black jurors: “The only reason he was struck was that he was a young African-American. This juror gave answers that clearly indicated he was a fair juror.”
Defense attorney Randy Rueckert cited the Facebook posts: “He heard that, and that’s important. I’m not kicking him off because he was black. … This case is not about black and white. The press has made it black and white. For gosh sake.”
Cook County Judge Vincent Gaughan ultimately sided with the defense after reviewing two of the attorneys’ five strikes: one for a black woman who has two sons who have been shot; another for a black man who said he believes only “God and Christ” can judge people.
The judge ruled both strikes “race-neutral.” No pattern had been established, he said.
Defense attorneys soon hit back with their own complaint after prosecutors used a peremptory strike to cut a white man who said he’s close friends with many police officers and has seen dashcam video of Van Dyke fatally shooting McDonald (“Everybody has”).
“How can you be more honest than this person was?” Rueckert asked. “He said he talked to police officers, but not about this case. I don’t know how you can ask for a more honest juror. He’s being challenged only because he’s a white male.”
Gaughan sided with the state, arguing there was no clear pattern of discrimination.
Five new jurors were sworn in Wednesday — including a Hispanic woman training to be a Chicago police officer. The woman, who is in her 20s or 30s, said she passed a written exam and will soon move on to a physical test. The woman said she never saw video of the fatal shooting and has no opinions on the case, noting, “No one is above the law.”
She brings the existing jury pool to 10: seven women and three men after two days of jury selection. Five jurors are white, three are Hispanic, one Asian-American and one black.
In all, 12 jurors and four alternates are needed. Van Dyke, 40, can still opt for a bench trial any time before a 12th juror is sworn in.
Jury selection is expected to continue at 8:30 a.m. Thursday at the Leighton Criminal Courthouse, 2650 S. California Ave.
Among the five new jurors selected Wednesday is a black woman who’s been a FedEx driver for 24 years. She said she’s seen video of the shooting: “I couldn’t say [Van Dyke] was guilty, but I had an opinion about how many times the shots went off. I can’t lie about that. … That’s a lot of shots.”
Also chosen was a white man in his 30s who said he never saw the video. When asked whether it’s wrong to second-guess police, he said: “We always need checks and balances.” He later said: “I’m just a big supporter of the Second Amendment. I have a lot of respect for police officers. That’s really all there is to it.”
An unemployed Hispanic grandmother who cares for young children was also chosen. She said her relatives work in fields in Texas; she watches Univision and has not formed an opinion on the case.
Rounding out the group is a white woman with close ties to Gaughan’s family. One of Gaughan’s brothers is her sister’s godfather; another stood up at her father’s wedding. Neither prosecutors nor defense attorneys objected to the connection. The woman works in billing and has prior experience on political campaigns. She reads the Chicago Tribune daily and knows a fair amount about Van Dyke’s case: “A lot of shots were fired.”
Van Dyke’s defense team has long argued the trial should be moved outside of Cook County because it would be impossible to find impartial jurors in Chicago. Van Dyke is charged with first-degree murder, official misconduct and aggravated battery.
Gaughan has declined to rule on a motion to move the trial, saying he wanted to interview potential Cook County jurors first.