'About doing what's right': Kane prosecutor McMahon on taking the McDonald murder case

 
 
Updated 10/14/2018 7:55 AM
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  • Kane County State's Attorney Joe McMahon said the guilty verdict against former Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke "was almost an immediate sense of relief. Both emotionally and physically, as well."

      Kane County State's Attorney Joe McMahon said the guilty verdict against former Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke "was almost an immediate sense of relief. Both emotionally and physically, as well." Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

Forty-five minutes.

That's how long Joe McMahon waited alone to hear a Cook County jury's verdict in the first-degree murder trial of former Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke in the death of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald.

The special prosecutor, appointed because of the conflict of interest in the Cook County state's attorney's office, was tucked away in a room in the Leighton Criminal Courthouse at 26th Street and California Avenue in Chicago.

He was alone with his thoughts and preparing for the enormity of the Oct. 5 moment.

"It was a tough 45 minutes," the Elgin resident recalled in an interview this week. "It wasn't lost on any of us how this impacted the city of Chicago, how it's been part of the national conversation on race relations, the national conversation on how we conduct our work and how we interact with different segments of the community. There were a million thoughts and emotions going through my mind and there was one single thought of, what's the verdict?"

The jury convicted Van Dyke of the lesser charge of second-degree murder and 16 counts of aggravated battery with a firearm -- one count for each shot that struck McDonald the night of Oct. 20, 2014.

After jurors read each of the guilty counts aloud, "It was almost an immediate sense of relief. Both emotionally and physically as well," McMahon said. "This case weighed heavily on us."

The verdict culminated two years of work and preparation by McMahon and his legal team to prosecute the most emotionally, politically and racially charged court case in recent memory. It drew national attention and sparked protests in Chicago and the country after the dashcam video of the shooting was released -- and Van Dyke was charged with first-degree murder -- in November 2015.

Kane County State's Attorney Joe McMahon reflects on the guilty verdict against former Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke of second-degree murder and 16 counts of aggravated battery in the Oct. 20, 2014, shooting death of Laquan McDonald, 17. McMahon was appointed special prosecutor in the case.
  Kane County State's Attorney Joe McMahon reflects on the guilty verdict against former Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke of second-degree murder and 16 counts of aggravated battery in the Oct. 20, 2014, shooting death of Laquan McDonald, 17. McMahon was appointed special prosecutor in the case. - Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

McMahon, who has been Kane County's state's attorney since 2010, wasn't the first choice as lead prosecutor, the Chicago Sun-Times reported. Before he was called in, at least one other state's attorney from a neighboring county turned down the offer to prosecute Van Dyke, the Sun-Times reported.

It was a case McMahon didn't have to take.

When a letter from Cook County Judge Vincent Gaughan arrived on McMahon's desk in late spring 2016, he wasn't sure he wanted the appointment. But after talking with colleagues, McMahon knew he had to step forward.

He saw a sense of principle and a duty to pursue justice.

"This was an opportunity to live those words, live those words that we talk about all the time. About doing what's right and being fair and that we apply our laws equally to everybody and that everybody's accountable," he said.

"And I felt that if there was not a single prosecutor in the state who was going to stand up and step forward and take this case, that those words would ring a little hollow," he continued. "So I did."

He acknowledged he was nervous, and actually intimidated, meeting the Chicago and national media throng after his appointment in August 2016. McMahon said he was relieved the judge put a gag order on attorneys in the case so he wouldn't have to say too much in front of the cameras and microphones.

Kane County State's Attorney Joe McMahon said he took the case where Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke was charged with murder in the 2014 shooting death of Laquan McDonald out of a sense of principle and a duty to pursue justice.
  Kane County State's Attorney Joe McMahon said he took the case where Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke was charged with murder in the 2014 shooting death of Laquan McDonald out of a sense of principle and a duty to pursue justice. - Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

"It was stressful given the attention to this case, the stakes. Here is this non-Cook County lawyer being appointed. I worried about how it would reflect on me professionally, how it would reflect on this office," he said.

He received a full spectrum of reaction to his role, he noted. Most was positive, though Kane County Board Chairman Chris Lauzen criticized time McMahon and his staff spent on the Cook County case.

"I built a great team, a team of incredible lawyers. I didn't force anybody on this case," McMahon said.

McMahon noted other evidence and testimony -- Van Dyke taking the stand in his own defense, the number of shots fired, and eyewitness testimony -- as factors contributing to the guilty verdict. But it was a case that hung on the police dashcam video.

He acknowledged he was "skeptical for a number of reasons" that a jury would have convicted Van Dyke without the video, noting that cases where an officer is charged with murder usually result in a hung jury or acquittal and juries these days expect video evidence or want a good explanation of why there isn't any.

Without the video, "that would have been a very high bar to clear, to both bringing charges and then being able to prove what happened beyond a reasonable doubt," and it would be the word of a lot of Chicago police at the scene against that of civilian witnesses, McMahon said.

Kane County State's Attorney Joe McMahon reflects on the guilty verdict against former Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke of second-degree murder and 16 counts of aggravated battery in the Oct. 20, 2014, shooting death of Laquan McDonald, 17. McMahon served as special prosecutor in the case.
  Kane County State's Attorney Joe McMahon reflects on the guilty verdict against former Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke of second-degree murder and 16 counts of aggravated battery in the Oct. 20, 2014, shooting death of Laquan McDonald, 17. McMahon served as special prosecutor in the case. - Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

"I consider Jose and Xavier Torres heroes. Two citizens who saw something they knew was wrong, they spoke up," McMahon said. "Mr. Torres and his son, their testimony was powerful. Eyewitnesses with no connection to the prosecution, the defense. No connection to law enforcement."

Jose Torres was taking his son to the hospital the night of Oct. 20, 2014, when they saw McDonald get shot 16 times. An officer told them to move along; the next day, the elder Torres knew it was a lie when he saw the police narrative on TV that McDonald had a knife and lunged at officers.

Jose Torres was the final witness called by the prosecution, and McMahon recalled a meeting he and an assistant prosecutor had with Torres and his son over the summer.

"One of the things Mr. Torres said was he hoped somebody would speak up for his son if something like that happened to him."

McMahon hopes the outcome in the Van Dyke-Laquan McDonald case will help restore some confidence in the criminal justice system.

"There's a lot of people who have lost faith in it completely," he said. "I hope that by us taking this case on and making the commitment that we did -- when we didn't have to -- that it gives some hope to a lot of people."

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