'An intellect, a bully, and a great judge': Courthouse leader Vincent Gaughan set to retire after handling Chicago's biggest cases

  • In US
  • 2022-11-27 11:00:00Z
  • By Chicago Tribune

During a rare pause in Courtroom 500 one recent morning, Judge Vincent Gaughan saw something he deemed outrageous: A spectator was sitting with his arms spread out on the back of the pew, chatting.

"Sir! In the back! Don't be talkin' in my courtroom!" Gaughan yelled from the bench. "You could lose your liberty, do you understand? It's not an outdoor movie show, either. Put your arms down."

The man put his arms down. He stayed quiet.

Then a defendant was escorted into the courtroom screaming.


Gaughan stood up. The gallery held its breath. But the judge spoke gently and addressed the man by name. Under his gaze, the defendant softened.

"My name is Vince Gaughan," the judge said. "… This isn't a guilt or innocence thing, this is to see if you can get treatment in a hospital."

The defendant quieted and hunched over deeply in his seat. After a brief hearing, Gaughan ordered him released and put into mental health treatment.

"And I give you my word I'm not going to just let you sit over there," Gaughan told him. "So I'll keep track of you."

Gaughan is retiring after 31 years on the Cook County bench much like that: caustic but fatherly, autocratic but skilled, temperamental with everyone in his courtroom except - usually - the defendants themselves.

Some of those defendants have been the most infamous ever to set foot in the criminal courthouse: R. Kelly, ex-Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke, the men accused of the Brown's Chicken massacre. Gaughan has had his hand on the tiller of Cook County history.

Word of his retirement surprised many. Gaughan gets to the courthouse before some people get out of bed. He is 81 but startlingly energetic, always moving, bulldog jowls shaking, dark hair slicked back hard.

He speaks with great speed, his words tumbling over each other in that flat Chicago accent on the edge of a growl. He can fly into a rage, then sit back with a twinkle in his eye. He does not give interviews, and did not make an exception on the cusp of his retirement.

He inspires strong feelings. Some call him a bully; others call him a bully in a way that makes clear it's a compliment.

"I've got a great deal of respect for him," said longtime assistant public defender Marijane Placek. "It's a combination of an intellect, a bully, and a great judge, and that's the truth."

Chicago through and through

Vincent Michael Gaughan grew up in Lincoln Park, back when it was one of the poorest parts of town. His parents, Irish immigrants, named him after the local parish: St. Vincent DePaul, patron of charitable works and volunteers.

He went to Catholic schools, then the University of Illinois in some of the last years of its Navy Pier campus, the "Harvard on the rocks."

He graduated with an electrical engineering degree. Then he got drafted. His skills as an engineer could have qualified him for a deferment, but he decided against it; he felt an obligation, he has said, to serve a country that helped his immigrant parents succeed.

He was assigned to work alongside civilian employees as an electrical engineer in the Washington area, and took a job on the side tending bar at an officers club. The returning veterans he met there impressed him, the Tribune wrote in 1980. He shipped off to Vietnam in July 1966.

Lt. Gaughan and his company were on a search and destroy mission in February 1967 when they were called to assist another company; before they could get there, they encountered an "unknown number" of North Vietnamese combatants.

"With complete disregard for his own safety," Gaughan rescued the wounded company commander, helped establish a defensive perimeter and retrieved other injured comrades, according to military records. He was awarded the Bronze Star for valor.

And he volunteered to stay in Vietnam after his first tour ended, rather than become a basic-training company commander stateside.

"(Gaughan) didn't think he could stand 'telling some kid there's dust on his foot locker,' he says, after having lived for a year 'in the bush, where your skin was rotting from jungle rot,'" the 1980 Tribune story said.

He came home in April 1968 after the first phase of the Tet Offensive. The sentiment at home was turning hard against the war, and Chicago would soon be roiled by the infamous Democratic National Convention protests and "police riot."

"As you kept getting this pounding, pounding from the public, you almost got to the point where you felt ashamed," he told the Tribune in 1980. "And I don't know where the shame came from … Psychiatrists have said a lot of people came back with guilt feelings because people they were there with got killed and they didn't, but it was a little deeper than that. It was that you didn't want to talk to anybody about Vietnam unless they'd been over there."

The war changed the trajectory of his life. Not long after he returned, he enrolled in law school at DePaul University, a hard turn from his early studies in engineering. The war made him realize he wanted to work with people, not objects, he has said. He has been heavily involved in the American Legion for decades, and honored veterans at an annual 9/11 memorial ceremony at the courthouse.

The war changed him in other ways, too - his father told the Tribune in 1970 he had been nervous since coming back.

A reporter was at their home that morning because Gaughan had just shot an M-1 rifle from his third-floor bedroom into the house next door, narrowly missing his sleeping neighbors. Police surrounded the building. Gaughan called down the stairway, asking for a priest he knew.

"I want a policeman to come, too," he said, according to the Tribune story. "An Irish sergeant."

The officers laughed, and the priest and policeman came up to talk him down. He faced several charges, but no records apparently exist of how they were resolved. Gaughan has repeatedly declined to discuss the incident with reporters.

Early law career

The Cook County public defender's office of the 1970s was, Placek said, just the kind of touchy-feely environment you might expect of the era - full of "smile on your brother" types.

Gaughan, who began there in 1973, wasn't one of them.

Placek recalls overhearing a colleague leave the office early, making a stereotypical government-employee joke: "What's the good of having a political job if you can't take advantage of it?"

Gaughan overheard too. "He literally stopped him and said 'what's wrong with you? Don't you know we have a duty?'" she said. "He's so, to put it politely, forceful that the guy turned white."

After nearly 20 years as a public defender, many of them as a supervisor, Gaughan was appointed to the bench in 1991.

The courthouse at 26th and California was a nonstop whirlwind in the early to mid-90s, said attorney Stephen Richards, who was assigned to Gaughan's courtroom as an assistant public defender during that era. Crime was spiking and the "war on drugs" was in full swing. Gaughan was something of an anomaly on the bench; most judges were former prosecutors, not career public defenders.

"There's a lot of judges, particularly in those days, who gave the defense a hard time and were pro-prosecution. Some judges are nice to everybody," said Richards. "(But) he was one of the few judges who gave both sides a hard time."

After his appointment to the bench, Gaughan had to run in elections every six years to keep his seat.

Once, in 1998, the Chicago Council of Lawyers found him "not qualified" for retention. "Too many lawyers find his temperament to be erratic and occasionally unacceptable," they wrote. "He loses his temper on the bench, often without good reason." Subsequent evaluations also mentioned his temper, but "on balance" found him to be qualified.

He's far from the only 26th Street judge who yells and insults and storms. The difference is, according to those who have practiced in front of him, he's an equal opportunity yeller.

"He's got a lot of the temperamental issues … but he's also just extremely fair about it. He has a strong feeling about doing justice for victims, he has a strong feeling about giving defendants their rights," said Richards, who would later represent a defendant in the Brown's Chicken case before Gaughan. "Those two things exist in him, I think, very deeply."

And unlike some judges, he rarely loses his temper on the defendants in front of them: "A defendant would have to go very far to get on his bad side or elicit the kind of treatment he gives to attorneys."

The biggest cases

In 1993, seven people were slaughtered inside a suburban Brown's Chicken, where police found bodies stacked up inside a freezer.

A few years later, R&B superstar R. Kelly set up a camera in his wood-paneled basement and filmed himself sexually abusing his teenage goddaughter.

In summer 2002, both cases landed in the courtroom of Judge Vincent Gaughan.

Some insiders scoff that nobody really believes the judge assignments are random, though presiding judges insist often and with great vigor that it really is all up to the computer's "randomizer." Maybe it was just inevitable confirmation bias after he was assigned two media-frenzy cases in the span of one month, but Gaughan developed a reputation as the go-to judge for high-profile cases.

To prepare, he studied other major cases, even flying to California in 2005 to study how the judge in Michael Jackson's child molestation trial handled the crowds of reporters.

And Gaughan developed a template for major cases that judges in the building would soon copy, for better or worse. It is geared toward extreme control: Put attorneys under a gag order forbidding them to speak publicly on most matters. Begin each court hearing with a closed-door session in chambers. Keep key documents and hearings under seal. Threaten contempt liberally, and sometimes follow through.

Gaughan was so opaque in the lead-up to the Kelly trial that news organizations challenged his secrecy to the appellate court, which ultimately sided with Gaughan.

So years later, when Gaughan was assigned the case of Jason Van Dyke, he was perhaps emboldened. It was the biggest case to hit Chicago in decades, and he ramped up the control - and the secrecy - to levels never seen before.

Van Dyke, a white patrol officer, was on duty in October 2014 when he and his partner encountered 17-year-old Laquan McDonald, who had been walking around the Southwest Side under the influence of PCP and holding a knife. Dashboard camera footage showed McDonald walking away from police when Van Dyke came up and fired 16 times, killing McDonald.

The video was released more than a year later amid allegations of a cover-up, and Van Dyke was charged with first-degree murder. The "randomizer" gave the case to Gaughan in December 2015.

"My plan is, we're going to do this like the other high-profile cases," he said at the time.

But in fact, he put the secrecy on steroids. Each court filing would be presumed sealed, filed directly to his chambers, until he decided to release it. Not only were attorneys gagged from speaking out, so was anyone else remotely connected to the case.

News organizations made another hard-fought joint request for basic transparency, which escalated all the way to the state Supreme Court. This time, they won. The higher court ordered Gaughan to end the practice of filing court documents straight to his chambers. The gag order stayed in place; Van Dyke himself was accused of violating it when he gave interviews on the eve of his trial.

To journalist Jim DeRogatis, who has reported on accusations against Kelly for decades, that kind of secrecy helped mask Gaughan's approach to the singer's case, citing sources that told him the judge was consistently "bending over backwards" for the defense behind closed doors.

A jury acquitted Kelly in Gaughan's courtroom in 2008, for which DeRogatis puts the blame partially on Gaughan. The singer went on to have a career revival before being convicted on sex-crime related charges in two separate federal courtrooms - including charges related to the same video for which he was acquitted in Cook County.

"I don't know how Vincent Gaughan looks himself in the mirror and realizes that another 10 years or so of women were victimized horribly," he said.

Thomas Biesty, a former assistant state's attorney who was on the prosecution team for the Brown's Chicken case, said he bristled at first against the closed-door meetings.

Then, crammed into chambers "the size of a postage stamp," he realized it was a way to keep attorneys in a hotly contested case from getting too temperamental. "You're sitting on top of each other. It's kind of hard, just on the personal scale, to say mean stuff about each other."

The closed-door "case management" meetings sometimes did get heated during the Van Dyke case, said former Kane County State's Attorney Joseph McMahon, whom Gaughan appointed special prosecutor to handle the Van Dyke matter.

"There were times when they were very difficult, and this was equal-opportunity, where I or my team might be getting a tongue-lashing, (the defense) were getting a tongue-lashing," he said. "He was not afraid to dole out insults to people who he felt were making these informal arguments or assertions that were just preposterous … any type of puffery was just not tolerated."

Gaughan had an acute sense that such a major case could, without careful tending, go off the rails at any moment, McMahon said.

"He did a remarkable job at trying to control all the players, so to speak, so the focus stayed on the conduct that was charged and not the personality of the people," McMahon said. "He did that through those insults back in chambers, he did that through holding people in contempt in pretrial proceedings and during the trial - everybody was exposed to that, people who were sitting in the benches, the witnesses."

The contempt threats come in fast and furious during a big case before Gaughan.

A grandmother who yelled "Free R. Kelly" at the singer's jurors spent more than a month in jail for contempt when she couldn't post the $5,000 bail Gaughan ordered. The judge threatened to hold a lead Brown's Chicken prosecutor in contempt for calling him "rude" after tensions escalated during a pretrial hearing. He ordered multiple people into custody during Van Dyke hearings, including a teacher who snapped his fingers in support of a Gaughan ruling and a reporter who mistakenly thought he could record audio during the trial.

Gaughan's defenders note that, in certain ways, Van Dyke's actual trial was conducted with enormous transparency. Local reporters got an unusual amount of input in the trial's logistics. And almost every moment was livestreamed, audio and video recorded - an anomaly for 26th Street. Cameras have been allowed in Cook County courtrooms for almost a decade, though it is up to each judge whether to allow them, and few seem inclined to. Gaughan was an exception.

And, after Van Dyke was convicted of second-degree murder along with 16 counts of aggravated battery with a firearm, one of Gaughan's most controversial decisions was taped too: He gave Van Dyke less than seven years in prison, which critics called a slap on the wrist.

The unusual nature of Van Dyke's conviction forced Gaughan into an unusual choice: Should second-degree murder, which can carry a more lenient sentence, "merge" into the aggravated battery counts, as Van Dyke's defense attorneys argued? Or should it be the other way around?

Gaughan agreed with defense attorneys, sentencing Van Dyke on the second-degree murder count.

"Is it more serious for Laquan McDonald to be shot by a firearm or is it more serious for Laquan McDonald to be murdered by a firearm?" Gaughan asked from the bench. "Common sense comes to an easy answer on that in this specific case."

The decision set off an unusual battle before the Illinois Supreme Court. Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul, along with McMahon, chose to challenge the legal basis of the sentence at a higher court. State law, in fact, considers aggravated battery with a firearm a more serious crime than second-degree murder, and so Gaughan should have handed down a sentence on the aggravated battery, they said.

The state Supreme Court declined to hear the case, though one dissenter, Justice P. Scott Neville Jr., noted that Gaughan's ruling relied on a dissenting court opinion that was "the opposite" of prevailing state law.

Van Dyke ultimately withdrew the appeal of his conviction, and was released from custody earlier this year. People convicted of second-degree murder generally must only serve half their sentence, so he was out in a little more than three years.

The Rev. Marvin Hunter, McDonald's great-uncle, told the Tribune this month that he considers the sentence - and Gaughan's general attitude - a "horrible" and "intimidating" overreach.

"Did he run the courtroom? Yes, he enforced every law to the letter. He did that," Hunter said. "But I just know that it was really wrong of him to take it upon himself … (Van Dyke) chose a jury trial, whatever that jury said is what (Gaughan) should have done."

Even though Gaughan might seem mercurial, Placek said, there is a logic to his actions.

"That's possibly the most powerful thing he brings to the job. He can look at an individual, he can read them," she said. "A lot of people say he's a man of moods, but you know what, he's not. If you watch him, there's always something behind them, and he's always using them, almost like he's using it as a way of having you not only respect yourself but the law and get your job done."



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