Ill. camera coverage of big trials working superbly

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Its last two – and four of its last nine – governors are or were in jail.

Its pension funding problems are among the worst in the nation.

Its business climate ranks 48th in the country, the quality of its health care falls in the lowest third of all states and its schools consistently score in the bottom half of state rankings.

It’s been a long time since Illinois did something right.

Thanks to the Illinois Supreme Court, however, that string of embarrassments appears to have come to an end.

On Jan. 24, 2012, the court, under the leadership of Chief Justice Thomas Kilbride, announced its Policy for Extended Media Coverage in the Circuit Courts of Illinois, which allows state trial courts to seek permission to permit electronic coverage of their proceedings. The policy is proving to be a rousing success, pleasing the news media and converting many who initially opposed cameras in the courtroom.

The experiment last week passed its biggest test so far, the high-profile trial of Nicholas Sheley, who is accused of killing eight people in a 2008 crime spree in four towns in Illinois and Missouri. Convicted last year of one of those murders in Knox County, Ill., Sheley this time stood trial in Whiteside County, where he was accused of killing a 93-year-old man.

Whiteside County is part of the 14th Judicial Circuit, the first circuit to request and receive permission from the Illinois Supreme Court to allow extended news coverage. Since then, eight more circuits have received permission, although not all counties in some of those circuits have chosen to participate.

To minimize distractions and interference, the policy allows only one video feed and limits the number of photographers in the courtroom. Reporters, however, are free to tweet from courtrooms and post on blogs and other social-media sites in real time. This multi-platform coverage made the Sheley case the most transparent high-profile murder trial in Illinois history.

After the trial, Whiteside County State’s Attorney Gary Spencer was pleased not only with Sheley’s conviction but also with the electronic coverage, which he originally resisted.

“I ultimately believe that [the cameras] were done very well, they were very unobtrusive,” Spencer told a crowd of reporters and camera operators after the trial. “I can’t say that I still feel the same way I did initially. You folks all did a great job.”

Defense attorney Jeremy Karlin, who also initially objected to the electronic coverage, echoed Spencer’s comments but expressed concern that the extended coverage would make it difficult to find unbiased jurors for Sheley’s next trial in Whiteside County.

“I’m still greatly concerned about Mr. Sheley’s ability to find a (second) jury in Whiteside County,” Karlin told Sauk Valley Sunday. “I suspect that the next trial, as a result of this trial being televised and the refreshing of the case by all the media, it won’t be possible to pick a new jury in Whiteside County.”

While the difficulties of selecting a jury in the next case remain to be seen, it is clear that the news media are taking advantage of their new opportunities.

On the same day that many reporters and television trucks were covering the Sheley trial, for example, another contingent was in neighboring Lee County covering a court appearance of Rita Crundwell, the former Dixon, Ill., comptroller accused of embezzling more than $50 million from the city. That coverage followed the live broadcast of a murder trial in Kankakee County and extensive TV coverage of other murder trials in Whiteside and Lee counties.

“The (Lee County) case convinced me that cameras in the courtrooms in Lee County is a good thing,” Lee County Circuit Judge Ronald Jacobson told Sauk Valley Sunday. “The Sheley matter just reinforced that.”

The news media are even busier in more metropolitan Winnebago County, where judges have granted more than 30 coverage requests since the Illinois Supreme Court approved cameras in the 17th Judicial Circuit.

To deal with the requests, the 17th Circuit has adopted its own supplemental rules and assigned Thomas Jakeway, a deputy court administrator, as its liaison to the press.

“We’re a laboratory to determine what’s workable and what may not be, to try and find the best practices for the state,” Jakeway told the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin.

As these experiments succeed, pressure builds on the judges in Chicago and its suburbs to allow cameras into their courts.

In August, Cook County Chief Judge Timothy Evans predicted a pilot program would be under way in Chicago by the end of the year and indicated his willingness to reassign judges who resist the project. In September, DuPage County became the first suburban county to allow cameras in its courts.

As part of its policy, the Illinois Supreme Court requires judges to report on how electronic coverage is working. In his first report, 14th Circuit Chief Judge Jeffrey O’Connor told the court the project unfolded “smooth as silk.”

Illinoisans probably were surprised to hear any aspect of their state government described that way. For once, though, Illinois has gotten it right. States still resisting cameras in their courts would be wise to take notice.

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