Officer who killed Laquan McDonald wants a venue change—and is more likely to get one than the people he’s arrested
This week, people in the Chicago area reported to jury duty in the murder case of Laquan McDonald. It has been almost four years after Officer Jason Van Dyke shot the 17-year-old and nearly three years since the city was forced to release police video of the shooting, bringing national attention, criminal charges against Van Dyke, and the ouster of the police chief. It is, by all standards, a case familiar to the public, especially in Chicago, where the video sparked massive protests. Prospective jurors were given questionnaires to fill out before attorneys began to question them in their effort to find an unbiased jury. Van Dyke’s attorneys have argued that the publicity has made it impossible for the officer to get a fair trial in Chicago. The judge will decide on the change of venue motion after the jury selection process. [Associated Press / Atlanta Black Star]
Van Dyke seemed to be trying to influence potential jurors himself when he made his first public comment one week before jury selection began. “I might be looking at the possibility of spending the rest of my life in prison for, you know, doing my job as I was trained as a Chicago police officer,” he said in an interview with the Chicago Tribune. Van Dyke told his side of the story. “I never would have fired my gun if I didn’t think my life was in jeopardy or another citizen’s life was,” he said. Prosecutors argued that he violated a gag order and was trying to influence potential jurors through the media. [Leah Hope / ABC Chicago]
Since the beginning of jury trials, defendants have worried that they won’t receive a fair trial from those in their communities familiar with the allegations. And since newspapers began covering crime, they have generally not made matters better because they usually portray defendants as either scary or flat-out guilty. Social media has made matters worse. But most defendants with these concerns are not well-resourced police officers who can afford $152,000 bail, like Van Dyke.
Venue changes are rare, but many of those allowed to change venue have been law enforcement. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, after being accused of planting bombs at the Boston Marathon in 2013, was denied a change of venue even though the city had been locked down during a fierce manhunt. But the officers who were caught on camera beating Rodney King in 1991 were granted their application to change venue, and were not convicted. And in 1999, four New York police officers were charged with murder in the shooting of Amadou Diallo, an unarmed 22-year-old immigrant. They were acquitted in a trial that was moved about 150 miles away, to Albany. [Michael Muskal / Los Angeles Times]
A new study by Shirin Bakhshay and Craig Haney of the University of California, Santa Cruz, published in the journal Psychology, Public Policy, and Law asks “whether and how the right to a fair and impartial jury may be compromised by prejudicial news media coverage of death penalty cases.” Bakhshay and Haney examine the impact of pretrial publicity in 20 capital cases in California in which defendants asked for a change of venue because of concerns about potential bias. The researchers analyzed 1,831 newspaper articles “to examine the nature and extent of the pretrial publicity in each case [including] the relative amounts of negative, positive, and neutral content in the publicity; and whether the publicity included the kind of information that has been shown to bias prospective jurors.” The publicity was found to be “overwhelmingly negative and we identified a number of highly prejudicial aspects, including heavy reliance on law enforcement and prosecution sources, numerous instances of sensationalized descriptions of the crime and criminal defendant, and the inclusion of legally excludable material.” Despite all this, the venue was rarely changed. Only one of the cases in which a change of venue request was denied resulted in an acquittal. Most of the rest ended with a death sentence. [Shirin Bakhshay and Craig Haney / Psychology, Public Policy, and Law]
The newspaper coverage of the capital crimes was remarkably consistent over the 26-year period of the study. About three-quarters of the articles studied were negative in tone “including sensational descriptions of the crime, negative character statements (such as “cunning sociopath,” “walking time bomb,” “frightening and lengthy record,” “feared by his own family”, etc.),” according to Romeo Vitelli in Psychology Today. “The articles also included information that wouldn’t be allowed as evidence in the actual trial (i.e., prior criminal history, alleged confessions, and explicit assumptions that the defendant was guilty).” Only 19 percent of the articles tried to paint a more balanced picture, or presented evidence that might favor the defendant. Police officers and prosecutors were six times more likely to be cited than defense counsel or other sources in favor of the defendant. News coverage also focused on “community reaction” to the crime, which often meant quoting people who were outraged or afraid. [Romeo Vitelli / Psychology Today]
In theory, judges can deliver specific instructions to the jury to prevent bias, allow for longer jury deliberation, or postpone the trial until publicity has died down. But a study examining the effectiveness of these remedies found them to be ineffective. The study examined the efficacy of these methods in countering both “factual publicity”––incriminating information about the defendant––and “emotional publicity”––information likely to arouse negative emotions. A delay in proceedings was found to be an effective remedy when it comes to factual publicity, but not for emotional publicity. Neither instructions nor deliberation were found to reduce the impact of either form of publicity; in fact, the authors conclude, deliberation worked to strengthen publicity biases in favor of the prosecution. [Geoffrey P. Kramer, Norbert L. Kerr, John S. Carroll / Law and Human Behavior]