Journalist Who Told Laquan McDonald’s Story Faces Fight Over Sources


CHICAGO — If not for the reporting of Jamie Kalven, an independent journalist in Chicago, the world might never have known the name Laquan McDonald, a black teenager who was shot 16 times by a police officer as he walked down a street holding a folding knife.

Mr. Kalven questioned the official police account of the shooting and revealed the existence of a police dashboard-camera video that documented the episode. Months and many court fights later, Chicago city officials were forced to release the video of the shooting, which showed Mr. McDonald, 17, being shot again and again one night in 2014, even after he lay crumpled on the street.

Three years later, Mr. Kalven finds himself forced back into the case, subpoenaed by lawyers for the police officer, Jason Van Dyke, who was charged with first-degree murder in Mr. McDonald’s death.

He has been called to appear next month at a pretrial court hearing in which Mr. Van Dyke’s lawyers are seeking to learn the source of the information that Mr. Kalven published about the shooting long before the video was made public.

It is the latest diversion from the central question of Mr. Van Dyke’s guilt or innocence, and another delay in what is now the most closely watched murder case in Chicago.

On a single day two years ago, Mr. Van Dyke was charged in the shooting, the graphic video of the teenager’s death from a year earlier was released and Chicago erupted in protest.

Since then, the case has slowly crawled toward resolution. Mr. Van Dyke has pleaded not guilty but no trial date has been set. The venue of the trial — whether here or in a more distant county in Illinois — is a matter of contention. And it remains to be seen whether the case will be decided in a bench trial or by a jury.

The showdown with Mr. Kalven was prompted by Mr. Van Dyke’s lawyer, who suggested that Mr. Kalven obtained leaked documents and may have passed along that information to witnesses of the shooting, influencing their accounts to investigators.

The fight over Mr. Kalven’s sources threatens to push the start of the trial even further down the road, delaying legal proceedings that many Chicagoans say should have already begun. Mr. Kalven, the founder of the Invisible Institute, a local independent news organization, said he is prepared to fight what he sees as a broadside on his First Amendment rights. In a legal filing this month, his lawyer called the effort an “unjustified fishing expedition.” Mr. Kalven said in an interview that he is willing to testify — but not about his sources of information.

“The one thing that I’m clear about is that I’m not revealing my sources,” said Mr. Kalven, sitting in his office on the South Side this month as silver commuter trains swooshed by in the background. “If we’re going to have a full-blown First Amendment controversy over this, it’s going to take months or years.”

Daniel Herbert, Mr. Van Dyke’s lawyer and a former police officer, declined to be interviewed, citing a gag order imposed by Judge Vincent Gaughan of the Cook County Circuit Court. But Mr. Herbert’s efforts suggest that he may try to urge the judge to bar witnesses to the shooting from testifying at trial, on the grounds that their recollections were tainted by information Mr. Kalven passed along to them.

During a hearing in October, Judge Gaughan noted a suggestion that Mr. Kalven may have gotten the name of a shooting witness from someone connected to the Independent Police Review Authority, an agency that, at the time of the shooting, was responsible for investigating claims of misconduct and excessive force by Chicago police officers. “He will be testifying,” the judge said of Mr. Kalven, according to The Chicago Sun-Times.

Mr. Kalven, 69, says he is bewildered to suddenly become a player — and no longer an observer — in the case against Mr. Van Dyke.

It has been three years since he first heard the name Laquan McDonald. The news of the teenager’s death on the Southwest Side of Chicago on the night of Oct. 20, 2014, received modest coverage in local news media. An article the next day in The Chicago Tribune, citing a police union spokesman, noted that Mr. McDonald was armed with a knife, behaving erratically. The report said that he had “allegedly lunged at police” before being fatally shot by an officer.

Mr. Kalven remembers reading the article. “And then I turned the page,” he said.

But less than a month later, he received a tip from a source, passed along by Craig B. Futterman, a former public defender who runs a civil rights clinic at the University of Chicago. The source said that the McDonald shooting was nothing like what had been reported, and that there was dashboard camera video to prove it. The tip led Mr. Kalven to a civilian who had seen the entire episode; with some prodding, Mr. Kalven persuaded the witness to talk. In January 2015, Mr. Kalven obtained the autopsy report — a painstaking record of 16 bullets fired into Mr. McDonald.

The resulting story, “Sixteen Shots,” which appeared in Slate in February 2015, forced the case out of obscurity in the Police Department and at City Hall and into public view.

The investigation into Mr. McDonald’s death upended Chicago. The police superintendent, Garry F. McCarthy, lost his job. So did the head of the Independent Police Review Authority. The mayor, Rahm Emanuel, refused to step down despite calls for his resignation and nightly demonstrations in the city. Anita Alvarez, the state’s attorney for Cook County, lost her re-election bid. The Justice Department opened an investigation into possible civil rights abuses by the Chicago Police Department.

It wasn’t until a year after Mr. McDonald’s death — and after a judge told the city it had to release the video — that Mr. Van Dyke was charged with murder. He was the only officer among more than a half-dozen on the scene to fire a weapon at the teenager. Three other officers were indicted on state felony counts of conspiracy, official misconduct and obstruction of justice, accused of filing false reports and lying about what happened the night of Mr. McDonald’s death.

For years, Mr. Kalven has investigated government misconduct from his vantage point as an independent journalist from the South Side and as the son of Harry Kalven Jr., a university professor who was an expert on the First Amendment and was known for having defended the comedian Lenny Bruce. His father died of a stroke when he was 26; Jamie took over the writing of his father’s unfinished book on the First Amendment, a project that took 12 years.

Later, Mr. Kalven turned to investigations of public housing in Chicago, and in 2005 the city tried to force him to give up his notes and other source materials for an article on police misconduct. He refused.

Mr. Kalven says he is not sure if he will be forced to testify at next month’s hearing on the Van Dyke case, or if a brief prepared by his lawyer, Matthew Topic, will satisfy the judge.

He says he is more concerned about Mr. Van Dyke’s trial, which could begin next spring. In 2015, the release of the video of Mr. McDonald’s death was a trauma for many Chicagoans and a window into police conduct; the trial is expected to consume the city’s attention.

“I sort of feel like when you swim across a body of water and you can’t see either shore,” Mr. Kalven said. “We’re in the middle of a large, historic thing. We could end up in a worse place rather than a better place.”

This article was originally published in the New York Times


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