The Illinois Supreme Court has chosen a judicial district on the Iowa border to experiment with cameras in courtrooms because media there already have experience with the practice, officials said Tuesday.
Cameras will be allowed in the 14th Judicial Circuit as part of a pilot program. Cameras are banned in courtrooms in the rest of Illinois but have been allowed in Iowa, just across the Mississippi River from the 14th circuit, since 1979, according to the high court.
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The program could get its first big test as early as March during the trial of Nicholas Sheley, a man accused of killing eight people in Illinois and Missouri during the summer of 2008. Sheley was convicted last year of beating a Galesburg man to death in June of that year, and his next trial is set to begin March 5 in Whiteside County.
The 14th circuit also includes Henry, Mercer and Rock Island counties.
Chief Judge Jeffrey O'Connor of the 14th Circuit was the first in the state to apply for cameras in his courtrooms after the state Supreme Court announced the pilot program last week. O'Connor, who can see Iowa from his office window, said broadcasters in the area cover both states and are already familiar with how to handle proceedings.
"The media here are no stranger to this, so the transition should be pretty smooth," he said. "It can be done. It can be done without intrusiveness."
Supreme Court spokesman Joe Tybor said the district was chosen because of the media's familiarity with covering courts in Iowa and the experiment will be closely watched to help develop a template for judges in other circuits.
"The court wants a careful ... process to make sure that this can be done without risking the guaranteed rights to a fair trial," he said.
Area broadcasters cheered the decision as a win for viewers.
"Now ... transparency will exist on both sides of the river," said Heather Voudrie, news director for WHBF-TV in Rock Island.
"For us in television, it's always best to have the actual source give the information," said Denise Killian, news director for KWQC in Davenport, Iowa. "It's just so much more impactful to have the people saying it on camera, so the viewers actually feel like they're getting what actually happened."
Jennifer Fuller, president of the Illinois News Broadcasters Association, called the move a step in the right direction to opening all Illinois courts to cameras.
"We can show people that are a little bit leery of the process that we know how to do this," she said.