I was arrested during the Laquan McDonald murder trial. Here’s what I learned

Zachary Siegel is taken into custody on Tuesday, Oct. 2, 2018. (Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune/TNS via Getty Images)

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I entered Judge Vincent Gaughan’s courtroom on December 14. This past October, during Chicago’s historic trial of police officer Jason Van Dyke for the killing of Laquan McDonald, the judge held me in contempt for recording testimony of an expert witness. My attorney, FOIA wizard Matt Topic, representing me with assistance from First Look Media’s Press Freedom Defense Fund, argued for the court to reconsider my charge on the grounds I simply misinterpreted the rules regarding which media outlets were permitted to record––an honest mistake.  

Judge Gaughan, notorious for strictly enforcing courtroom decorum, didn’t let me off the hook. On December 14, I was sentenced to three months of supervision—about as light a sentence he could hand down, especially in comparison to the jail time he’s given other spectators held in contempt.

No doubt I’m one of the least important players to make the news during one of Chicago’s most high-profile murder trials. Van Dyke became the first Chicago cop charged for an on-duty shooting in more than 50 years, eventually convicted of second-degree murder and 16 counts (one per shot) of aggravated battery with a firearm for shooting McDonald. But I certainly won’t be the last freelancer, floating quietly adrift in a volatile industry, to suddenly find themselves in over their head, uncertain whether publications and institutions will show up for pricey legal and moral support.   

RELATED: How a little-known, Uber-driving freelancer brought the lawsuit that forced Chicago to release a police shooting video

I was doing a story on a niche psychological question in the trial for Undark Magazine, a science publication housed at MIT, which brought me to Cook County’s courthouse on October 2—three weeks into the murder trial. I was to report the expert testimony of Laurence Miller, a police psychologist hired by Van Dyke’s defense attorneys, and run it against the country’s top legal experts and cognitive scientists. Was his argument that any reasonable cop faced with Van Dyke’s “perceptual reality” would have also fired scientifically sound? Did the science he presented to the court meet the Daubert standard—the criteria ostensibly used to weed junk science from the courts?

The courtroom was surprisingly intimate. Local and national news outlets packed the first two rows of the courtroom’s long wooden pews. Across the aisle I spotted members of Van Dyke’s family sitting next to ex-bosses of Chicago’s Fraternal Order of Police. On the opposite side of the room sat members of Laquan McDonald’s family, such as his great uncle, Reverend Marvin Hunter, a steady voice in coverage of the trial. Sitting directly behind me was American civil rights leader Reverend Jesse Jackson, who in whispers chatted up a Chicago Tribune court reporter and me before the day’s proceedings began. Unprompted, he told us what he thought about police unions: too powerful. The jury? Too white.

Sign up for CJR's daily email

I also saw freelance reporter Jamie Kalven, whose 2014 article in Slate (“Sixteen Shots”) is the reason why there was a murder trial at all. Kalven narrowly escaped a contempt charge after he refused to out whoever tipped him off about McDonald’s death. Topic also represented Kalven, helping quash the subpoena Kalven defied.

When Judge Gaughan entered the courtroom, we all rose. Before Miller—my subject—took the stand, Judge Gaughan instructed a sheriff’s deputy to read his “decorum order,” which stated credentialed media were exempted from rules that prohibited electronic devices, such as digital recorders. I ignored this; I had a media credential, so thought I was exempt.

The lights dimmed and Miller began presenting his slideshow, “The Neuropsychology of Deadly Force.” He went on about a multitude of biological systems interacting to ignite our body’s stress response, basic “fight or flight” stuff. I typed up every word of his testimony, with my recorder next to me as a fail-safe.

Shortly after the lights flicked on, one of Judge Gaughan’s deputies walked by me and swiped my recorder. He looked at my press badge, then scurried out of the room. Miller was still testifying, so I just kept typing as fast as I could.

Everything after that went down at disorienting speeds. Getting called up before Gaughan felt like watching a play and suddenly becoming an actor in it. Of course, I had no script, no stage direction, and performed poorly. I forgot to end every sentence with “your honor.”

Judge Gaughan asked if I had been recording. I said yes. My voice quivered, my chest pumped. Judge Gaughan asked if I heard the decorum order. I said yes. Then he had me taken into custody.

RELATED: Jamie Kalven on why his court win isn’t a free-press “victory”

After I was taken to a cell behind the courtroom, the judge told the room that I was trying to “cheat the system.” I know he said that because there is a recording, both audio and video, of me being arrested and scolded for recording. More ironically, the hearing was broadcast on live TV, so my mother watched me get detained from her living room.

Stripped of my belt, shoelaces, and all my belongings, I asked a deputy whether I was going to jail. “Remember the R. Kelly trial? When that woman screamed, ‘Free R. Kelly!’,” he said. “She was in jail six months. Same charge.” Later I found out that she was in jail for six weeks, because she couldn’t make bail. Gaughan oversaw the R. Kelly trial, during which he also threatened the reporter who broke the story with contempt.  

I also later learned that Judge Gaughan held a police reform activist, Tyrone Williams, in contempt for too loudly exclaiming “What?” during a hearing. He was held without bail. Another man, Moises Bernal, a teacher, approvingly snapped his fingers when Judge Gaughan ruled against a motion to dismiss Van Dyke’s charges. That landed him in jail, with bail set at $4,000, and a year of probation.

The Chicago Tribune has described Judge Gaughan as “secretive” and “mercurial.” Gaughan has been criticized for sealing critical documents and frequently holding off the record discussions with attorneys during hearings, where no one is watching or listening. He set the terms of my sentencing in his chamber without me or a court reporter present. “His approach has grown so draconian,” the Tribune’s Stacy St. Clair wrote, “multiple news organizations banded together earlier this year to challenge him, accusing Gaughan in court documents of attempting ‘to destroy the First Amendment presumption of public access.’”

During the three months the charge hung over me, Judge Gaughan’s unpredictability was most nerve-wracking. When I was back in front of the judge a week after I was detained for permission to travel while out on bond, he said, “You’re going to get the purple heart in journalism for this.” Judge Gaughan did not return multiple requests for comment.

While I was handcuffed to a bench, journalists in the room came up with $100 and bonded me out. I missed Van Dyke taking the stand.

David Bernstein, former features editor at Chicago magazine, who’s now writing a book about the trial, rushed the cash down to the office before I was transferred to the county jail. Judge Gaughan himself said after he set my bond that jail is too dangerous a place for me, which I took to mean a big nosed nerdy looking Jewish guy. (Judge Gaughan handed Bernal and Williams, both men of color, far more severe penalties than me.)

Undark supported me vigorously. Tom Zeller Jr., Undark’s editor in chief, told the US Press Freedom Tracker, “If the judge’s goal was to intimidate other working journalists, it will not work.” The editor overseeing me, Sara Talpos, kept me focused on the story while making sure I felt supported.

After sentencing me in December to three months of supervision, Judge Gaughan asked if I had anything to say. I said that I didn’t, to which he said something along the lines of: You’re a journalist, of course you have something to say. I took a breath while spectators chuckled, and began to explain that had I known I was violating the decorum order I wouldn’t have recorded. But he cut me off before I could finish explaining.

Throughout my case I kept hearing the same message: don’t let this stop you from covering future cases. Newspaper staffs have shrunk, and many papers no longer have dedicated reporters hanging around the local courthouse. This means more freelancers will find themselves covering courts, and we should.

But each state and county has different rules, and judges can make or change the rules at anytime. When you’re in a courtroom, you’re on the judge’s turf. Ask the court’s press office what the rules are for journalists. Research the judge’s reputation and learn about their style. Without institutional support the risks of covering courts are are high and the pay is low. The real reward is being an eye for your community, especially when judges try obstruct the view.

RELATED: New podcast delves into controversial Chicago police shooting

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Zachary Siegel is a freelance journalist in Chicago whose work has appeared in New York Times Magazine, Slate, The Atlantic, Undark Magazine, The Appeal and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @ZachWritesStuff.