Illinois court allows live broadcast of Peterson trial

Monday, March 7, 2011

At 1:15 p.m., a WGN-TV camera started rolling in the courtroom of the Illinois Appellate Court, 3rd District, in Ottawa. That television coverage marked the first time an Illinois appellate court hearing had been broadcast live.

“Allowing a camera into this courtroom is a very big change for us,” appellate clerk Gist Fleshman told The Times of Ottawa. “This is the first time that camera coverage of oral arguments before justices has been allowed.”

The case warranting this ground-breaking attention is People v. Peterson, the highly publicized murder prosecution of Drew Peterson, who has been charged with killing his third wife and who is the prime suspect in the disappearance his fourth wife. The primary issue on appeal is whether hearsay statements of the third wife should be admitted at trial.

By all accounts, the oral argument proceeded normally, without any interference by the camera or any grandstanding by the lawyers. In addition to WGN-TV’s live broadcast, the argument was streamed live over the Internet.

While court rules have permitted cameras in the Illinois Supreme and Appellate courts since the 1980s, WGN’s request for live coverage of the Peterson oral argument was the first request an appellate court has granted.

“Times are changing,” Fleshman told the Naperville Sun. “Two years ago, we wouldn’t have given out one of our (audio) tapes. They were only for internal use.”

Audio recordings of appellate court arguments have been available online for about a year, and the Illinois Supreme Court has for the last two years posted on its website video and audio of its oral arguments.

While few cases are likely to generate the interest that has surrounded the Peterson case, the apparent success of this broadcast seems certain to open the door to more video coverage of Illinois appellate courts. Whatever one thinks of the guilt or innocence of Drew Peterson, that is a welcome development.