Cameras will be allowed in Illinois trial courtrooms for the first time in the state's history as a way of making legal proceedings more transparent, the Illinois Supreme Court announced Tuesday.
Video and audio recording in court will begin on "an experimental, circuit-by-circuit basis," according to the order issued by Chief Justice Thomas L. Kilbride.
Cook County circuit court Chief Justice Timothy C. Evans welcomed the new policy, calling it a "positive change in the right direction."
He said he will seek to have cameras in Cook County courtrooms, which chief judges can opt out of during the experimental period.
Evans said he'll appoint an advisory committee of judges, attorneys, media members and members of the public to make recommendations on implementing the policy.
Chief judges in Lake and DuPage counties said they will consult with their fellow circuit judges before deciding whether to allow cameras in their courtrooms.
Chief judges in other suburban counties have not yet weighed in on the new policy which also gives individual trial judges the ability to opt out of video and audio coverage.
"The provisions of this new policy keep discretion in the chief circuit judge and the trial judge to assure that a fair and impartial trial is not compromised," said Kilbride in a prepared statement.
While courtrooms have always been open to the public, the new policy makes the proceedings more accessible, said DuPage County State's Attorney Robert Berlin, who advocates transparency but has some concerns about the new policy.
"What happens in a courtroom is not entertainment. My fear is that it may come across that way," Berlin said.
Berlin also expressed concern about the consequence of cameras and recording devices on witnesses, "many of whom are hesitant to come into a courtroom and testify. Cameras and microphones will only add to that stress."
Cameras have been allowed in the Illinois appellate courts and the state Supreme Court since 1983.
Chief judges of each circuit can apply for admission into the pilot program, which requires Supreme Court approval. Members of the media then may ask to electronically cover eligible cases in that circuit. Cases exempt from video and audio coverage include juvenile, divorce, adoption, child custody and evidence suppression cases. The policy prohibits media members from recording or photographing jurors, potential jurors and complaining witnesses in sexual assault cases unless the witness consents. Additionally, victims of felonies, police informants and undercover officers may request the judge prohibit media members from photographing them.
In Cook County, Evans said broadcasts of actual trials will be educational alternatives to dramatized court proceedings now on TV.
"Allowing media to have cameras and recording devices in the courtroom will give the public a better idea of what goes on in their courtrooms, and they will understand that what they see on television court shows is not a true picture of how judges do justice," Evans said in a prepared statement.
In Lake County, "we are awaiting more detailed information on the policy," said Chief Judge Victoria A. Rossetti. "Once we have the opportunity to look at the entire document and discuss it within the circuit, we will decide if we wish to participate in the experiment."
DuPage County Chief Judge John T. Elsner echoed her thoughts, saying he wanted input from his fellow DuPage jurists, especially those presiding over criminal matters, before proceeding.
While many trial proceedings seem mundane, several high-profile trials are approaching, including the murder case against former Bolingbrook police sergeant Drew Peterson. A TV movie based on the case aired last week.
"I've always believed there should be coverage of trials," said Joel Brodsky, who represents Peterson, charged with first-degree murder in the 2004 drowning death of his third wife, Kathleen Savio. Peterson is also a suspect in the 2007 disappearance of his fourth wife, Stacey Peterson.
Courtroom cameras will educate the public, whose perceptions of what happens during criminal trials is colored by shows like "CSI" and made-for-TV movies that "have no resemblance to reality," Brodsky said.
"The public will gain a great deal of knowledge of what really goes on in the criminal justice system," Brodsky said.
Staff writer Tony Gordon contributed to this report.