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  WINDY CITY TIMES

Gay juror recounts Van Dyke trial experience
by Matt Simonette
2018-10-17

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Early in September, Chicagoan Will Harpest was reading a New York Times article about Mayor Rahm Emanuels' decision not to run for re-election. That article mentioned that trial selection in the murder trial of Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke, who was charged with the murder of Laquan McDonald, was imminent.

It didn't take long for Harpest—who was scheduled for jury duty—to put two and two together, especially when he arrived at the Cook County Courthouse and saw the entrance teeming with protesters. He was indeed to be a possible juror for the high-profile Van Dyke trial, which would eventually find the officer guilty of second-degree murder and 16 counts of aggravated battery.

"When I arrived at jury duty, there were 250 other people there that first day," he recalled. "We each filled out a 20-page paper, and were given a time to come back the next week. When I came back, there were only none of us, and we were sent into the jury room. We went in, and there sat the entire prosecution team and defense team, and Judge [Vincent] Gaughan. They each had a copy of the paper I'd filled out."

After some questions, Harpest was again sent away. "Then, about an hour later, about three of us were called back and we were sworn in as jurors."

Among the questions on that initial questionnaire was, "What bumper stickers do you have on your car?" Harpest answered that he had "an equality sticker" there, even adding a drawing of it.

Gaughan asked him during the interview, "What's an 'equality sticker?'"

Harpest replied, "I'm a gay man, and that's for an organization that supports equality for all LGBT people."

From that day on, Harpest and his fellow jurors were asked to avoid news about the trial, but word broke that a gay man was serving on the jury.

He said that his relationship with his fellow jurors was cordial, and that he came out to them during the course of a conversation about what their questionnaires looked like: "I said, 'I'm the gay one.' After that, it was fine; I got along with with them fine."

Harpest said jurors were "somewhat aware" of the possible repercussions of the decision in the trial, since larger questions of CPD accountability and its relationship with the city's Black and Brown communities were among the stakes.

"But remember that we were not reading newspapers, or watching TV or listening to the radio," he said. "So [the community] got a daily dose of, 'This is what the jury is doing now,' but we didn't get any of that hype. Most of Chicago was feeling that anxiety and we did not feel that."

Gaughan offered the jury the option of being sequestered in a hotel or going home for the duration of the trial. They chose the latter option, and were only sequestered one night as they deliberated. Harpest and his partner adhered to his instructions not to discuss the case.

"He followed the rules and said nothing to me about what was going on," Harpest said. "I could tell that he was tense. When I got home that Friday, when it was all done, we both cried. It was like he was in the closet—he couldn't tell anybody else what I was experiencing. He had to hold it inside. … We were in such a bubble that we were not aware of the intensity of the feeling in the rest of the city."

Harpest said that the deliberations were thoughtful and cordial; jurors focused their discussion on whether the prosecution had met their burden of proof.

"A lot of the discussion was about understanding what the law said," he recalled. "Each [criminal charge] had attributes we had to agree on. The big job was making sure that all 12 of us understood those words in the same way. … It was understanding the language, and what it meant, that was the biggest challenge."

Indeed, Harpest said that the deliberations, though difficult, were also somewhat refreshing to him, in that they "reminded him of a time when political discussion and differences were understood and respected. … It was a great bubble to be in. Once we understood the words, the puzzle-pieces came together fairly quickly."

Harpest also had high praise for Gaughan, whom he said repeatedly expressed his respect and appreciation for jurors.

"He sat down with us after it was over, and asked us if we had any questions," Harpest recalled. "He then made the comment that, 'Whoever put together this jury system that works this way should be in heaven. Because it works—you have 12 diverse people from all around Cook County coming to a decision like this. If society [outside the court] worked like that, you'd have a much healthier society.'"


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