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Media coalition secures unsealing of court records in case against Chicago police officers accused of obstructing investigation into Laquan McDonald’s death

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  1. Court Access
Note: A version of this post was originally published on Oct. 11, 2018. It has been updated to include information…

Note: A version of this post was originally published on Oct. 11, 2018. It has been updated to include information about additional court records that were unsealed on Oct. 30, 2018.

A Cook County judge has granted a July motion filed by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and a coalition of six media organizations to unseal court documents that shed light on the case of three Chicago police officers facing obstruction of justice and other charges related to the shooting death of teenager Laquan McDonald.

The officers — David March, Joseph Walsh and Thomas Gaffney — are also facing conspiracy and official misconduct charges for allegedly interfering with the investigation into former police officer Jason Van Dyke’s fatal shooting of 17-year-old McDonald in October 2014. Van Dyke was found guilty of second-degree murder and 16 counts of aggravated battery with a firearm.

At a Sept. 24 hearing, Cook County Judge Domenica Stephenson granted the media coalition’s motion to intervene in the case and unsealed court filings providing information about how much taxpayer money is being spent to pay prosecutors in the case.

On Oct. 4, Judge Stephenson unsealed the prosecutor’s motion to admit co-conspirator hearsay testimony at trial, along with related briefing. The now public document alleges that unnamed officers, in addition to the three being charged, worked to protect Van Dyke.

And on Oct. 30, Judge Stephenson unsealed the defendants’ motion to dismiss the case, the special prosecutor’s response and the defendants’ reply. In the motion to dismiss, the defense argued that there was no evidence to support the charges against the officers and alleged that the special prosecutor “committed prosecutorial misconduct in the Grand Jury.” In the reply to this motion, the special prosecutor wrote that the defense hadn’t presented “a single shred of evidence of misconduct” and urged the court to deny the motion to dismiss.

Judge Stephenson had previously delayed ruling on unsealing the documents in a series of hearings after the July motion was filed. In response, the media coalition filed a status report and supplemental memorandum urging the court to rule on the July motion and advising the court that continued delay constitutes a denial of access. It was only after this filing in which the coalition again asked the court to rule that Judge Stephenson began to unseal records in the case.

In the July brief, the media coalition argued that the documents in question should not have been sealed and are “presumptively open to the public under the constitutional and common-law rights of access.” The brief also argued that the court did not provide any specific findings to justify the decision to seal the documents, which is required under the law when withholding judicial documents from the public.

In addition, the Reporters Committee noted that access to records in the case is in the best interest of the court because the documents will help the news media present more complete and accurate information to the public.

“This case is of high public interest, and unfettered press coverage of it enhances the public’s confidence in the judicial process,” the media coalition wrote to the court.

Additional filings related to the case can be found here.