Lawyers representing the Laquan McDonald estate made some bold, crucial accusations against the Chicago Police Department today. They’re alleging that the department threatened witnesses out of sharing their testimonies on the Laquan McDonald’s police shooting death from October 2014.
One man said that he and his son were told by officers to drive away after seeing the shootout, otherwise risk being thrown in jail. Other witnesses say they were thrown into police cars, separated and interviewed for hours at the police station. They even allege that officers told the witnesses that their accounts were wrong.
“It’s not just the officers on the street,” attorney Jeffrey Neslund told CNN. “It’s a lieutenant, a sergeant and detectives — and the lengths they went to justify what simply was not true.”
While investigating the case, the McDonald’s lawyers were told by the police department that there weren’t any witness statements. From there, the attorneys deduced that the witnesses weren’t asked to sign statements by the Police Department at all.
A federal grand jury is now looking into the case and for possible corruption from the department. If proven true, legal experts say this could result in mass terminations for the Chicago police at various levels of authority.
“This is the first time I’m hearing of that allegation,” spokesman Anthony Guglielmi for Chicago’s Police Department said. “But this is why we want an independent investigation to look at every fact. But unfortunately, we’re not able to comment on any specific incident.”
The office for Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel also responded, saying:
“The police actions surrounding this shooting are under investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice for possible criminal charges, and by the city’s Inspector General for possible disciplinary action. The public deserves answers to a number of important questions in this case, and we eagerly await the findings of those investigations.”
Meanwhile, Judge G. Barry Williams has been going the extra mile to prevent information about Baltimore’s Freddie Gray case from being leaked to the public. His efforts—and the efforts by the Chicago Police—highlight the concerns and frustrations that have frequently been brought up about transparency and corruption in black lives matter cases. Most recently, the Tamir Rice case made headlines because Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Timothy McGinty refused to release transcripts of the grand jury’s review to the Cleveland chapter of the NAACP.
Jocelyn Simonson, an assistant professor at Brooklyn Law School and former public defender told the Baltimore Sun: “It’s a genuine battle. I don’t think it’s absurd for a judge to be sealing things sometimes, but as a public, what we want to be assured of is that there’s a careful assessment on a case-by-case basis, and not a blanket assessment.”
Judge Williams has asked jurors not to talk about details surrounding William G. Porter’s mistrial to the public. Porter is one of the officers involved with Gray’s death. The judges request is unusual because once the trial is over, jurors are generally allowed to speak openly about the case or even write extensively about the proceedings like one woman once tried to after serving in the 2013 Trayvon Martin case.
On top of telling jurors to stay quiet, Williams has sealed court filings on the Gray lawsuit. This is supposed to be acknowledged in a public court file but it has yet to come up on the website that has been mandated for documents and news updates on the Gray case. Furthermore, the hard copy of the file has been unavailable for public viewing at the clerk’s office since Nov. 30, as it was taken by the judge in time for Porter’s court dates.
Williams issued a gag order against prosecutors and defense attorneys on the trial in October. It’s unclear why the judge has made such an effort to conceal the documents, as there are many possible reasons for this. Simonson muses that this might be to protect witnesses or to prevent jurors from being more biased.
Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the University of California, Irvine School of Law and an expert in constitutional law said:
“Where I think the law is and should be is that there is a strong presumption of the openness of all documents, and there has to be a strong and important reason for secrecy as to a particular document. Once you say that the press and public has a right to attend almost all parts of a criminal trial, documents are a part of that.”