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Attorney Daniel Herbert leads legal team requesting Laquan McDonald’s juvenile records

When the judge said no, they went to another judge to get their request approved. That didn’t work either. Now, the defense team in the Laquan McDonald case is preparing to go at it again. But waiting for them is a tough judge who has stared down a defense team that’s determined to carve out a winning case for a white officer accused of killing a Black teenager.

But in the other corner are prosecutors and lawyers who are out to make sure Chicago’s most high-profile case remains focused on the killer and not the life of the victim.

Emotions are running high at the Leighton Criminal Court Building, where the troubled life and death of McDonald has taken center stage during a series of pretrial hearings that have turned into a tug of war between defense lawyers and prosecutors. It’s a case that’s shaping up to be an intense fight over documents that may help shape the criminal trial of Jason Van Dyke, Chicago’s first police officer who has been charged with first-degree murder for killing a teenager.

For years, high-profile criminal trials around the country have provided powerful courtroom drama, but the case of Van Dyke may be the most intense case in the city’s history and perhaps the nation’s. Behind the intrigue is Van Dyke’s team of big-shot lawyers who, despite stiff opposition, are lighting up pretrial hearings that’s giving activists and Black leaders a scary glimpse of what they should expect in the criminal trial.

For the third time, defense lawyers on Nov. 2 said they will request the juvenile records of the teenager who was killed by Van Dyke in 2014.

The announcement came after Judge Patricia Martin on Oct.12 denied a similar request by the defense team. It was the second time the judge denied the defense request. The first time was Aug. 10. Now Van Dyke’s lawyers believe that a third time may be charm.

In her rulings, Martin has expressed under the law her belief that Van Dyke is not qualified to have access to McDonald’s juvenile records because he has been charged with first-degree murder. The ruling pleased the lawyers for McDonald’s mother, Tina Hunter. They called the defense’s request a “fishing expedition” that aims to shift the focus away from Van Dyke and the false narrative he and others gave before a dashcam video was released and showed what really happened.  

The lead attorney, Daniel Herbert, said the records were vital for the defense of Van Dyke, who shot McDonald 16 times. More than a year later, a video of the killing was released, sparking numerous protests throughout Chicago and the country. The video also led to the firing of then Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy and the ouster of Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez in the Democratic primary elections.

A chunk of McDonald’s files has already been released to several news media outlets. In most instances, juvenile records are confidential documents that are closed to the public. Public record laws recognize the need for media outlets to use confidential documents for important news stories. If there is a compelling interest for disclosing the content of the records, a judge may grant media outlets limited access to some juvenile records.

The McDonald case has been one of them. Hundreds of documents have been released to Chicago’s mainstream newspapers and television stations. The documents tell the story of a sad and difficult life of McDonald. At a young age, he was molested and he was placed under state care. Like many young Black males, gangs and drugs were a heavy influence on McDonald as he lived on the city’s West Side.

During pretrial hearings, these juvenile records have been a big concern for Van Dyke’s defense team, which have been accused of trying to create a defense to smear McDonald’s reputation and show that he was responsible for his own death. But since the pretrial hearing began last summer, Hunter has remained opposed to the release of her son’s juvenile records.

After their initial request for McDonald’s juvenile records were denied, Van Dyke’s lawyers took another route. This time, they submitted another request before a different judge, Vincent Vaughn, who is the presiding judge over the criminal case. The defense team wants access to 8,000 pages of McDonald’s records from the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services. Still, their second request for the juvenile records was rerouted back to Martin, who once again said “no.”

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