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Reporters Committee and news organizations secure unsealing of most court records in high-profile Chicago murder case

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Last month, an Illinois judge ordered the unsealing of a majority of the court records filed in the high-profile murder…

Last month, an Illinois judge ordered the unsealing of a majority of the court records filed in the high-profile murder trial of former Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke, who fatally shot 17-year-old Laquan McDonald in October 2014.

Cook County Judge Vincent Gaughan’s order to unseal more than 70 of the approximately 110 documents filed in the case to date comes after the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and seven news organizations intervened in March to argue that the public has a First Amendment and common law right of access to court records.

For more than a year, Judge Gaughan has required parties to the case to file all documents in his courtroom instead of the court clerk’s office, effectively blocking the press and public from accessing them.

The Reporters Committee and news organizations are continuing to seek access to approximately 36 documents that remain under seal. Among them are two defense motions to dismiss the charges against Van Dyke for prosecutorial misconduct by the former state’s attorney for Cook County Anita Alvarez. Judge Gaughan ruled that these motions and six related filings should remain sealed because the allegations against Alvarez are unfounded and could harm her reputation.

However, the Reporters Committee and news organizations objected to the continued sealing of these documents, arguing that the risk that a person may suffer embarrassment or reputational harm is not a legitimate basis for sealing court files, as the Illinois Supreme Court has recognized.

Judge Gaughan also denied the unsealing of any court filings that contained references to grand jury materials or so-called Garrity statements, which are statements that were made by law enforcement officers during the police’s internal investigation of the shooting and are deemed “coerced” and therefore inadmissible in court. The Reporters Committee and news organizations have argued that sealing these documents in their entirety is overbroad, and that one option is for the court to redact grand jury material references and Garrity statements from the filings and release the remainder of the information.

Van Dyke’s motions to transfer the case outside of Cook County and to admit evidence of McDonald’s alleged violent behavior and related filings also remain sealed. Also troubling is the court’s requirement that the Reporters Committee and news organizations themselves file their court documents under seal, even though Illinois courts have recognized that requiring intervenors to do this in public access litigation is a clear abuse of judicial discretion.

In addition to denying the press and public access to records, Judge Gaughan has also closed two recent hearings, on May 4 and 10, where he found that the “trial will be prejudiced and the safety of witnesses will be at risk” if the hearings were open. During these hearings, the court considered whether to allow Van Dyke to admit evidence of McDonald’s alleged past violence to support his assertion that he acted in self-defense, and whether to allow testimony from a defense expert about the psychology of police-involved shootings and the expert’s examination of Van Dyke.

The Reporters Committee and news organizations also filed an opposition to closing these hearings, citing Supreme Court precedent establishing a presumption of access to pre-trial criminal proceedings and noting that the evidence at issue supported Van Dyke’s case and therefore could not threaten to prejudice his right to a fair trial. Although Judge Gaughan ordered that transcripts of the hearings would be made available, it’s possible they will not be released until the relevant witnesses testify at trial, which may be several months away — meaning journalists would be unable to access and report on important details from the hearings in the meantime.

The Reporters Committee and news organizations have also appealed to the Illinois Supreme Court for an order blocking Judge Gaughan’s requirement that all documents in the case be filed under seal in his chambers, arguing that this procedure flips the First Amendment presumption of access on its head.