The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press is seeking to unseal court documents that could shed light on the alleged misconduct of three Chicago police officers facing conspiracy and other charges related to the October 2014 shooting death of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald.
Police dashcam footage of the shooting — which led to protests, public outrage, and a Justice Department investigation into the Chicago Police Department — showed McDonald holding a knife and walking away from police officers when then-Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke shot him 16 times. The three officers — David March, Joseph Walsh, and Thomas Gaffney, who is still employed by the police department but currently suspended — are charged with official misconduct, obstruction of justice, and conspiring to obstruct justice in the investigation of Van Dyke, who is awaiting trial on first-degree murder charges.
In a motion filed on July 6, the Reporters Committee and six news organizations argued that the press and public have a First Amendment right to access the sealed documents, which include the defendants’ motion to dismiss the charges against the officers and the government’s request to admit as evidence testimony that supports the conspiracy charges. The media coalition also challenged the sealing of responses to these two documents, which were filed under seal on Tuesday.
Access to court documents, the media coalition argues in its motion, is essential to journalists’ ability to accurately and comprehensively report on police misconduct, a topic of intense public interest.
“News coverage of this case will provide the public with a window into the workings of its criminal justice system and assure the public that justice is being properly served in this important matter,” the motion states.
In addition to sealing these documents, Cook County Judge Domenica A. Stephenson, who is presiding over the case, has also issued a gag order that restricts attorneys’ speech outside of the courtroom, as well as the release of documents containing evidence not yet ruled admissible in court.
The media coalition’s motion to unseal the documents also notes that, under the test established by the U.S. Supreme Court in Press-Enterprise Co. v. Superior Court and subsequent cases, a court must begin with the presumption of access to court filings. Courts may only close hearings or seal documents when there is a compelling interest in secrecy that overrides the public’s interest in openness. If the court does determine that there is a compelling interest, any document sealing or court closure must be “narrowly tailored” to serve that interest. The court must give specific reasons for the secrecy to allow an opportunity for the press and public to appeal those findings to a higher court.
Judge Stephenson has not made any findings to justify sealing the documents in this case, according to the media coalition’s brief. In addition, because the defendants in this case have requested a trial by judge instead of jury, there is no concern that disclosure of the documents would influence the jury pool and prejudice the officers’ right to a fair trial (a common reason judges keep documents in criminal trials under seal).
The two initial records have been sealed since mid-June, and on July 10 the court sealed related filings as well. Judge Stephenson will hear arguments related to the media coalition’s motion to intervene in the case and unseal on July 31. The trial is set to begin in November.
The Reporters Committee and another media coalition have also intervened in Van Dyke’s case to challenge restrictions on public access. Cook County Circuit Judge Vincent Gaughan, who is presiding over Van Dyke’s case, had ordered all documents in the case to be filed under seal in his courtroom instead of the court clerk’s office, effectively preventing the public and press from accessing any records. The Reporters Committee and seven news organizations challenged the order in a direct appeal to the Illinois Supreme Court. The state’s highest court struck down Judge Gaughan’s order and directed all documents to be filed in the clerk’s office. The media coalition also succeeded in convincing the court to create a public docket and to unseal most of the filings in the case.
Filings related to both cases can be found on the Reporters Committee’s litigation page here.