Motions Fly in Jason Van Dyke Murder Trial

A crowd of spectators at a pretrial hearing saw Judge Vincent Gaughan approve the murder charges against a Chicago police officer; the lead defense attorney also tipped his hand as to his trial strategy.

In October of 2014, Officer Van Dyke was among the officers who responded to a disturbance call involving 17-year-old Laquan McDonald; according to a witness, Mr. McDonald had burglarized several trucks in a parking lot and threatened the owner with a knife. Officer Van Dyke fired 16 shots, killing Mr. McDonald. Part of the shooting was caught on video, creating a public furor. Subsequently, a Cook County grand jury indicted the officer on one count of first-degree murder and 16 counts of aggravated battery (one count for each shot). During the pretrial hearing, Judge Gaughan dismissed defense arguments that Officer Van Dyke had official immunity from murder charges. However, the defense persisted with arguments that Officer Van Dyke lacked the intent to murder and that laws protect the justified use of excessive force.

Several protesters attended the hearing, and one of them was held in contempt when he told Judge Gaughan that he came to court “to see a racist murderer on trial; a racist killer.”

Substantive Motions in Criminal Cases

Essentially, first-degree murder is a killing with malice aforethought, so for a jury to convict Officer Van Dyke of murder, Special Prosecutor Joseph McMahon must convince all 12 jurors that the officer either lay in wait for the victim (which is not likely) or that Officer Van Dyke harbored animus towards black people in general, or Mr. McDonald in particular.

Pretrial hearings only determine probable cause, and in close cases like this one, many judges will bind the defendant for trial and give a jury an opportunity to weigh the evidence.

If the charges are blatantly unsupported by the evidence, however, a judge will usually grant a motion to dismiss or a motion to reduce the charges. For example, a jury cannot find a defendant guilty of burglary if the defendant did not unlawfully enter the property of another. Typically, motions to dismiss are granted without prejudice, which means that the state’s attorney can clean up the indictment and refile the charges.

Procedural Motions

Some pretrial procedural motions relate to the Fourth Amendment and other Constitutional provisions concerning admission of evidence. If police officers did not have a search warrant based on probable cause, and no recognized exception applies, that evidence is normally inadmissible. The same principle applies if officers detained a suspect without reasonable suspicion or made an arrest not based on probable cause.

Other procedural motions are designed to delay the proceedings. For example, many defense attorneys almost routinely file motions for substitution of judge, since moving the case to another court may cause several months of delay. However, such motions are risky. They often antagonize the judge, who may then become hostile if the motion is denied.

Contact Tenacious Attorneys

Serious criminal cases are sometimes won or lost during motion hearings. For a confidential consultation with an experienced criminal law attorney in Schaumburg, contact Glasgow & Olsson.

(image courtesy of Jackson Jost)

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