Small-town court blazing path to in-court cameras
MORRISON, Ill. — Now that the last legal hurdle has been cleared, an alleged serial killer's trial marks the first big test of a new policy to allow cameras in Illinois courts. And the questions for the courthouse that will be pioneering the historic effort will switch from the sublime to the practical.
For Nicholas Sheley's June trial, the burden of finding those answers falls to the technical services manager at the red-brick county courthouse in Morrison — a rural town in northwest Illinois that's suddenly in the spotlight as officials statewide tune in to see how the experiment plays out.
Standing in the courtroom that will host Sheley's trial, court techie John Maas explained that the plan is to place a television camera amid the spectators' benches in the back. They'll cut a hole in a ceiling tile and run a cable up, over a hallway and back down into the courthouse library.
"It's all so new, we've got to improvise," Maas said.
Courthouses across the state will be scrambling in the coming months as they try to conform to the Illinois Supreme Court's decision last month to test cameras in state courts. Many buildings are more than a century old and may have more trouble accommodating cameras than Morrison's 25-year-old courthouse.
If all goes well — and the practice doesn't undermine defendants' rights to a fair trial — the high court wants to eventually pull Illinois out of the group of 14 states that bans extensive media access in court.
To participate, a chief judge in one of about two dozen districts must apply with the Supreme Court to participate. Jeffrey O'Connor — the chief judge in the 14th judicial district that includes Whiteside, Henry, Mercer and Rock Island counties — did within just days of the decision.
O'Connor is also Sheley's trial judge. With his apparent enthusiasm for the program, it's little wonder he denied a motion at a Friday hearing from both prosecutors and Sheley's lawyer to bar cameras on grounds that media attention would make it more difficult to choose an impartial jury for a subsequent murder trial for Sheley.
O'Connor told them that details of the disturbing allegations against Sheley are already so widely known that footage from the upcoming trial wouldn't "make one bit of difference."
Sheley is accused of killing eight people in Illinois and Missouri over several days in June 2008 — bludgeoning each one, including a 2-year-old boy. He was convicted last year of killing Ronald Randall, 65, of Galesburg.
The upcoming trial is for the death of 93-year-old Russell Reed of Sterling. O'Connor pushed the trial date back from March 5 to June 11 on Friday to give the defense more time to prepare.
Defense attorney Jeremy Karlin said Friday he doesn't oppose the cameras in principle, but he said his client's case was unique because he will be tried again on related charges.
"Everyone's feeling their way how to do this with cameras — and no one really knows how it will affect witnesses, the judge, attorneys, or how the defendant will react to them," he said. "This is the wrong case to experiment on."
Maas has a simple plan to avoid dozens of photographers and videographers jockeying for position in the courtroom: Put television and radio producers in the law library, so they can all hook into the single feed.
"If it works the way we see it, there will be one guy standing quietly at the back of the room with a camera on a tripod — that's it," he said.
That may not be a viable solution for older courthouses with concrete walls, explained Victoria Bluedorn, a trial court administrator for the 14th district.
"I'll bet three-fourths of Illinois courthouses were built in the 1800s," she said. "You'll need a diamond saw to get through their walls. It could really be tough."
Instead, the courtrooms could install permanent camera and audio systems capable of broadcasting to TV stations or mobile TV trucks. But it'd be a strain on a small-town budget: Mass said those run about $25,000 per set.
Bluedorn attended recent meetings that O'Connor held with local reporters about how to meet the needs of the press without disrupting the Sheley trial proceedings.
"The judge had no idea how all this should work — so he asked the media to tell him," she said. "And the local press have been jewels. It's remarkable they've figured so much out in a single month."
There's pride, too, that this rural northwestern corner of Illinois — not the capital, not big-city Chicago — is the vanguard of such a historic change in the courts.
Bluedorn does not count herself among the skeptics who think the experiment will fail.
"It's baby steps, sure," she said. "But everything is going so well. In six months, we will have established a procedure and it will be as normal as in any state with cameras."
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