As is usual during pretrial hearings in the case against former Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke, advocates for police reform packed the pews in Judge Vincent Gaughan’s courtroom last Thursday. Among them was 45-year-old Tyrone Williams, an activist with the Chicago Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression. Though Van Dyke, who faces first-degree murder charges for shooting and killing 17-year-old Laquan McDonald in October 2014, was the center of attention, plenty of other defendants were also waiting for hearings in front of Gaughan. Among them was 44-year-old Norman Hall. By the time Gaughan ended his court call on March 8, he’d ordered both Hall and Williams to be held at the Cook County Jail—without bail—for what witnesses describe as minor outbursts.
Gaughan is notoriously strict about courtroom decorum, and has been warning attendees to Van Dyke’s hearings that he will hold in criminal contempt of court anyone who disrupts proceedings, either by protesting outside of court, harassing Van Dyke, or speaking out of turn in his courtroom. Criminal contempt in Illinois is typically treated as a misdemeanor, punishable by up to six months in jail and up to $500 in fines. Unlike in other criminal cases, defendants held in contempt are not automatically entitled to jury trials.
Hall had a scheduled appearance before Gaughan on felony charges of promoting prostitution. Witnesses describe him being disoriented as he sat in the gallery waiting for his case to be called, raising his hand several times, and attracting the attention of sheriff’s deputies.
“I don’t know what he said to the bailiffs, but they told him to sit down,” recalls Ted Pearson, cochair of the Chicago Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression. “I got the feeling that he was trying to check in, that he had a summons and he wanted to let someone know he was there.” Hall tried again to approach deputies some time later and was again told to sit down, Pearson says. “When he sat down he made some type of sound that he was not happy . . . like a scoff.” Pearson says a deputy then told Hall he needed to leave the room, which he did.
Gaughan appeared irritated when Hall’s case was called and he wasn’t in the courtroom, witnesses said. Pearson said Hall looked confused when he was called back in from the hallway, and other witnesses said he continued raising his hand and trying to ask questions even as he got to the judge’s bench. “The third or fourth time he put his hand up to talk, the judge said, ‘Take him into custody,'” Pearson says. “They grabbed him and put him out. We were wondering what on earth was going on, it seemed so bizarre.”
In his dismay at Hall’s situation, Pearson and others who were with the Alliance say Williams loudly exclaimed “What?!”—which carried across the courtroom. Gaughan demanded to know who’d said it and Williams quickly fessed up. “The judge called him up to the bench and had him taken into custody for contempt,” Pearson says. “We haven’t seen him since.”
Also in court that day was Moises Bernal, who during a hearing last spring faced Gaughan’s wrath for snapping his fingers in appreciation when the judge ruled against a motion to dismiss murder and battery charges against Van Dyke. Bernal was held on $40,000 bail and spent 11 hours in jail before the required $4,000 was paid to get him out. Ultimately Gaughan sentenced him to a year on probation. Bernal says the ordeal has had a “devastating effect” on his life.
“I’m basically unemployable right now,” says Bernal, a former part-time teacher at the Instituto del Progreso Latino. He’s been applying for jobs with a security company and City Colleges. “I get to the point where people want to hire me but then they get the background check report and they see the 12 months probation,” he says. “I’m collecting unemployment insurance and I’ve had to take my pensions out early . . . just for snapping my fingers.”
Bernal, who’s friends with Williams, says he wasn’t aware of Gaughan’s strict rules because he was late to the May hearing and missed the judge’s admonitions about decorum. He says that Williams knew the rules, but that Hall clearly didn’t, and neither of them deserved such harsh punishment. Hall “was there at the wrong time and his disorientation caused him to get arrested,” he said. “I think Mr. Williams was overcome by righteous anger, passion, to see a fellow working-class black man being treated in that way.”
Gaughan ordered a psychiatric evaluation for Hall and set his next hearing date for April 5. Williams’s next court date is set for April 4, but his attorney, James Fennerty (who also represented Bernal), is planning to ask for more reasonable bail terms later this week.
Advocates say that Gaughan’s bail decision could violate chief judge Timothy Evans’s new order regarding bail. Last fall Evans revamped central bond court and ordered that judges should not set bail at amounts defendants can’t afford to pay. Only those who would certainly not show up in court again or would pose “a real and present threat” to others should be given no bail, per the order.
“It sounds like this isn’t remotely at issue,” said attorney Alexa Van Brunt of Northwestern University’s Roderick MacArthur Justice Center, who has been working with a coalition of local groups on bail reform efforts. “No bond on a criminal contempt order seems severe and unwarranted and arbitrary.” Van Brunt notes that cases like these are an extreme variation on the wider problem of pretrial detention, which can alter defendants’ lives in extreme ways whether it lasts days or years. “Even a couple days makes a difference when you have a job and responsibilities,” she says. “It’s really traumatic and damaging.”
Williams’s friends have started an online fund-raiser in his support in case he does ultimately need to post a money bond or loses a job he recently got at Walmart. They noted that the position is particularly precious since Williams, a father of two, has a prior felony conviction. “He served his time and he’s really getting himself together,” Pearson says. “He had a job. I don’t know whether his job is gonna be there anymore when he gets out.”
Van Brunt says the situation raises questions about whether Gaughan is using his judicial discretion appropriately: “There can be abuse of discretion.” Though Williams’s supporters believe Gaughan is violating the men’s Eighth Amendment rights, judges are typically immune to civil rights lawsuits.
Bernal—who says his experience with Gaughan hasn’t deterred him from showing up for Van Dyke’s hearings—thinks the judge is wielding his power in this way due to the high-profile nature of those hearings. The irony, he notes, is that Laquan McDonald’s supporters are getting thrown in jail for courtroom disruptions while Van Dyke walks in and out of court a relatively free man.
“He gets to go home, he’s employed, and people who snap their fingers or say one word or grunt are facing these devastating consequences,” Bernal says. “We didn’t shoot anybody, we’re not a danger to anyone’s safety, but we’re suffering.”