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What the Van Dyke murder trial judge has in common with Laquan McDonald

Vincent Gaughan posed a public danger one morning when he was 28. But the police response was far different from Jason Van Dyke's.

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Judge Vincent Gaughan, a past commander of the Illinois American Legion, leads a 9/11 observance in front of the Cook County Criminal Courthouse in 2003. - AL PODGORSKI/SUN-TIMES
  • Al Podgorski/Sun-Times
  • Judge Vincent Gaughan, a past commander of the Illinois American Legion, leads a 9/11 observance in front of the Cook County Criminal Courthouse in 2003.

Laquan McDonald was armed with a knife and acting erratically on the evening of October 20, 2014. The 17-year-old had already used the knife to pop the tire of a police car and scratch its windshield. He'd ignored orders from officers to drop the knife. He had PCP, a hallucinogenic that can cause combativeness, in his bloodstream.

But there were no civilians nearby as McDonald walked down Pulaski Road. The threat might have been contained, and McDonald disarmed, with no one ending up hurt. Instead, as McDonald angled away from two officers, one of them, Jason Van Dyke, shot him, then emptied his magazine into the teen as he lay on the pavement. "The threat had been mitigated," as a detective put it in his report.

Last November 24, Van Dyke was charged with McDonald's murder. On a court date the following month, a clerk in the Leighton Criminal Courthouse ran a computer program that randomizes judicial selection. The randomizing usually is done in a clerk's office, but because of the significance of Van Dyke's case, chief criminal court judge LeRoy Martin Jr. had the process conducted in open court. The software program chose Vincent Gaughan to preside over Van Dyke's case.

Gaughan, 74, was an apt draw for several reasons. He's a 25-year veteran of the bench. He's handled other high-profile "heater" cases. In 2008 he presided over the jury trial of singer R. Kelly, who was acquitted of child pornography charges. In 2007 and 2009, the two men charged with killing seven people at a Brown's Chicken in Palatine were convicted by juries in Gaughan's courtroom.

Gaughan should also know, from an episode in his own life, about the importance of defusing volatile situations.

The son of Irish immigrants, Gaughan grew up in Lincoln Park. After he graduated from the University of Illinois in 1964, he joined the army. In 1966 he graduated from the Artillery Officer Candidate School in Fort Sill, Oklahoma, and was commissioned as a second lieutenant. He served in the Vietnam war until 1968, earning a Bronze Star for valor.

In 1970, he was a 28-year-old law student at DePaul University and living with his parents in a three-story frame building in Lincoln Park. He'd been "nervous" since returning from Vietnam, his father would later tell police.

One evening that April, Gaughan came home agitated; he'd had a minor traffic accident and gotten into a scuffle with the other driver, reporter Bill Mullen would write in the Tribune. Gaughan went to his bedroom on the third floor and locked the door.

At 3 AM the following morning, the couple next door was awakened by gunfire. Two bullets had shattered their bedroom window and pierced the wall above their bed, according to Mullen's story. The couple ran from the bedroom, and the husband, Darius Latchin, called police. When two officers arrived at the home, Latchin showed them into his dining room. He was talking with them when two more shots came through a window, narrowly missing the officers.

Police soon determined that the gunfire had come from the third floor of the Gaughan home (Mullen's story doesn't explain how), and officers swarmed on the home. Gaughan called down the stairway, saying he wanted to talk with Father John Richardson—a priest at DePaul and a friend of his. Richardson, who was DePaul's vice president, was soon in Gaughan's foyer, discussing the situation with sergeant Charles Adamson and other officers. According to Mullen's Tribune story, Richardson told the officers he knew Gaughan well, and that "he won't hurt me."

As the priest started up the stairs, Gaughan called down: "Wait—I want a policeman to come too. An Irish sergeant."

"That broke the tension," Mullen wrote. "The policemen smiled, and the guns went down." Adamson said he was Irish, and volunteered to accompany Richardson upstairs.

Inside his bedroom Gaughan laid down the M1 rifle he'd fired. "He came downstairs and outside with Father Richardson, where both got into a squadrol," Mullen wrote. Gaughan's father asked to go to the station too, and an officer "put his arm on the old man's shoulder" and offered to take him in his squad car.

Mullen reported that Gaughan was charged with aggravated assault, unlawful use of a weapon, failure to register a weapon, and discharging a firearm in the city. But there was a warm and uplifting tone to the story nonetheless. Police had worked to calm Gaughan and had responded with restraint—extraordinary restraint, if indeed four people, two of them police officers, had nearly been shot. The officers called to the scene hadn't tried to chase Gaughan from his room with tear gas, which could have led to a deadly shootout on the stairway.

I wondered if the fact that Gaughan was white and a war hero had played a role in this patient response. Gaughan had been armed with a rifle that had a range of 500 yards. (Laquan McDonald had a folding knife with a three-inch blade.) A perilous threat had been mitigated, and no one had been harmed.

Gaughan was admitted to the Illinois bar a little more than two years after the incident, in September 1972. From 1973 through 1991, he worked in the Cook County public defender's office, rising from a courtroom lawyer to a felony trial lawyer supervisor. He was appointed to the county bench in 1991, and elected a judge the following year.

I don't know what happened to the criminal charges lodged against him. It's hard to find records for a case that old. In response to my Freedom of Information Act request, the Chicago Police Department said it had no records of the arrest, and that records of an incident that took place that long ago likely would have been purged. I have another FOIA request pending with the state's attorney's office.

I thought perhaps Gaughan himself would tell me what happened to the charges. I also hoped he'd talk with me about what happened that day in 1970. What precipitated the incident? Why did he shoot into his neighbors' house? How did he feel about the way police handled things? I would have also liked to ask him how the incident affected his thinking about the Van Dyke case, but I knew he wouldn't be able to talk about that.

I reached him by phone Monday morning, but before I could ask a question, he informed me that "I don't do interviews or any of that." I said I was calling about the 1970 shooting incident he was involved in. He thanked me for letting him know, then reiterated that he doesn't give interviews. "God love you, take care," he said, and hung up.

An applicant to the Illinois bar can be admitted even if he's been convicted of a crime. Applicants must disclose any criminal charges made against them, and the Illinois Supreme Court's Character and Fitness Committee then interviews the applicant and determines whether to recommend his admission. Records related to this process are confidential.

Gaughan has received mostly positive reviews as a judge. The last time he was up for retention, in 2010, the Judicial Performance Commission noted that lawyers had praised his "preparedness and control of his courtroom and cases." The commission also noted "general criticism with regard to his temper, particularly as directed toward attorneys in his courtroom," but concluded that "on balance," he should be retained. Earlier evaluations by the Chicago Council of Lawyers lauded Gaughan's legal ability and "unquestioned" fairness and integrity while also expressing concern about his "erratic" temperament.

Should the 1970 incident disqualify Gaughan from presiding over the Van Dyke case? Not in my mind. Judges, like jurors, bring a wealth of personal experiences into courtrooms. How those experiences impact their fairness and judgment depends on a multitude of factors. Lawyers I spoke with mentioned Gaughan's eccentricity but stressed his intelligence, industry, and fairness on the bench. He's not in the pocket of the state or the defense, many of them added.

For better and worse, Gaughan's also headstrong. No one's going to push him around. That quality tends to be a plus in a case in which public sentiment is running high. With Gaughan as judge, Van Dyke's fate is more likely to be decided in the courtroom instead of in the court of public opinion.

His affinity for the military might seem to make him sympathetic to a defendant who's a police officer. Indeed, the military has remained central in his life; he's been active in the American Legion in Illinois, serving as its commander in the 1990s. But a couple of lawyers told me that because of Gaughan's deep principles, he also might be offended by an on-duty officer who egregiously breached the tenets of his profession.

Van Dyke could choose to have Gaughan try him rather than a jury; it's the defendant's option to be tried by bench or jury, and he doesn't have to make that decision firmly until right before trial.

The lead characters in the 1970 episode all had illustrious careers. Richardson, now 92, rose to the presidency of DePaul in 1981 and served in that role for 12 years. Adamson left the Chicago police force in 1975, after which he wrote scripts for Miami Vice and created the 1980s TV series Crime Story. He died in 2008. Mullen, the Tribune reporter, won two Pulitzers in the 1970s. Today he's 71 and retired.

And now Gaughan, who's already overseen prominent cases, will handle the most prominent one in Chicago in years. A case stemming from what appears to have been a reckless police response will be presided over by a judge who may owe his life and career to a prudent one. v


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