A Cook County judge on Wednesday removed a legal barrier cited by Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration for withholding thousands of pages of city records about an alleged police cover-up for Jason Van Dyke, the officer who fatally shot teenager Laquan McDonald.
Judge Vincent Gaughan, who oversaw Van Dyke’s murder trial, lifted a “decorum order” he imposed in 2016 to keep potential jurors from seeing evidence he might rule inadmissable.
A Lightfoot spokeswoman on Wednesday afternoon sent a statement that hailed the ruling as “one step in the process to make records of a high public interest more transparent and easily accessible to residents.”
The records come from a 2016 investigation by city Inspector General Joseph Ferguson’s office. That probe led Ferguson to recommend dismissal of 11 police officers, including Chief of Detectives Eugene Roy and Deputy Chief of Patrol David McNaughton, who both resigned before facing discipline.
This year Ferguson has pushed for the release of the records, saying the public still does not know “the full story” about the shooting.
During her mayoral campaign, Lightfoot promised that release of the IG records would be “a priority.”
“It’s absolutely critical,” she told WBEZ in March, that the records “be fully released in their entirety, including all the attachments and the evidence.”
After Lightfoot took office, WBEZ requested the material under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act. Her administration responded by sending a list of legal reasons for keeping the material secret.
The FOIA response pointed to the decorum order and to laws at both the local and state level that “prohibited” the mayor’s office from providing the records. Those laws include a Chicago municipal code that, according to Lightfoot’s administration, barred release of IG investigatory files and reports.
In July, Lightfoot proposed an amendment to that code that would authorize the city’s corporation counsel “in his sole discretion” to release some inspector-general reports linked to a death or possible Illinois felony charges — if the case has “compelling public interest.”
A Lightfoot spokeswoman said the City Council could enact the amendment as soon as September 18. At that point, she said, the city will release the records.
As Gaughan tossed out the decorum order on Wednesday, he unsealed 18 documents, the latest among scores of court records in the Van Dyke case that WBEZ and other news outlets have successfully fought to make accessible to the public.
The 18 include ill-fated defense motions for the charges against Van Dyke to be dismissed because of alleged prosecutorial misconduct before grand jurors. Other documents — most of them heavily redacted, as ordered by Gaughan — describe incidents from McDonald’s troubled childhood that defense attorneys sought to present at trial to bolster their claim that Van Dyke had no choice but to open fire.
The trial ended last October when a jury found Van Dyke guilty of second-degree murder and 16 counts of aggravated battery with a firearm. In January, Gaughan sentenced Van Dyke to 81 months in prison with the possibility of release in half that time. Van Dyke, listed as a federal inmate in New York, is scheduled for release in February 2022.