A year after news cameras debuted in DuPage County court, two local judges say they're still uncomfortable with the program because of how the media portray "sensational" cases.
Judges George Bakalis and Kathryn Creswell each say they support public transparency but take issue with how cases are being covered and what it means for defendants.
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"Some of the things I've seen so far seem to concentrate on just pictures of accused defendants in prison garb and cuffs," Bakalis said in a recent Daily Herald interview. "I think that's a problem for the presumption of innocence, which accompanies each of these cases unless a jury decides otherwise."
In April, Bakalis became the first DuPage judge to voice misgivings about the use of a pilot program allowing news crews to document court proceedings with still and video cameras.
In a ruling, he noted that all but one request for local courtroom photography involved felonies, while potentially educational topics such as foreclosures and traffic court went ignored.
"This leads the court to believe that the media has an interest only on what might be deemed sensational or headline-grabbing criminal cases," Bakalis said at the time.
Creswell echoed those concerns last month, issuing what amounted to a blanket denial for all future requests, or "until I am convinced my impressions are incorrect."
The presiding judge of the felony division, Creswell said it was difficult to see the public value in an image of a restrained defendant when little else about the case is given coverage.
"It does nothing to advance transparency in the courtroom proceeding, and it may in fact jeopardize the defendant's right to a fair trial in the future," the judge said in her ruling.
The Illinois Supreme Court launched the pilot program late last year. Since then, 35 of 102 counties across the state, including Kane and Lake, have signed on to participate.
The program leaves the ultimate discretion up to individual trial judges. In DuPage, four judges have approved in-court photography on a dozen cases, including a high-profile triple murder trial this past spring. Regionally, only Bakalis and Creswell have denied every request to come before them.
"We've obviously had other judges who have said 'no' for specific cases -- some say 'yes' to still (cameras) and 'no' to TV -- but we've not had any other judges who've stepped up and said, 'We're not going to do this, period,'" said Tony Capriolo, who coordinates courtroom photography across the area as managing editor of the Local News Service partnership in Chicago.
DuPage Chief Judge John Elsner said that while judges of the 18th Circuit voted to participate in the program, each coverage request is reviewed on a case-by-case basis. In instances were cameras were allowed, he said, judges have reported overwhelmingly positive experiences.
"Our experience has been the press could not have been more professional," Elsner said, adding he has no control over how the news media uses the material. "It's their choice."
Illinois has allowed cameras in its Supreme Court and appellate courts since 1993. But until last year, it was one of only 14 states without regular photography in any of its local judicial circuits.
Illinois Supreme Court spokesman Joe Tybor said former Chief Justice Thomas Kilbride, who introduced the program, was an ardent supporter, as is his recent successor, Rita Garman. She told The Associated Press she's "wholeheartedly" behind cameras in the courtroom.
Tybor said Kilbride believed the program eventually would "sell itself."
"I think the expectation or the goal is that, as cameras in the courtroom become more frequent that more and more judges and more and more other stakeholders will see that some of the fears they may have do not exist or can be minimized," he said. "I don't think resistance from judges was unexpected. It's understandable because it's change, and change will meet resistance."
Tybor noted that while some cases have been covered on television with little more than visual snippets, the triple murder trial in DuPage was streamed live on the Internet in its entirety.
In other counties, there also have been requests to cover civil court proceedings and a drug court graduation.
"The stereotype is, the media is only interested in high-profile cases," Tybor said. "But I don't think that means the media is not interested in using cameras in the courtroom to educate. To me, it would be important for judges who are not inclined toward allowing cameras to experience them, to allow them insofar as their feedback would be very valuable to measure the effects of the program."
Lawrence Schlam, a professor of constitutional law at Northern Illinois University in Dekalb, said the debate over courtroom photography has been raging for years, but supreme court justices seem to have struck a "fairly reasonable compromise" in the discretion left to trial judges.
"They're the referee. They're there to make sure there's fairness in the trial," he said. "Case by case, you have to make a decision as to whether it will be done fairly with cameras in or out."
There's currently no plan to move the program out of the pilot stage. Tybor said justices first want to get the state's most sprawling judicial circuit, Cook County, up and running.
"That will be the biggest test," he said.
In DuPage, Bakalis said he hasn't written off the idea entirely.
"I think the Supreme Court wants this to take place, and I would like to see it used a little more widely than it is being used at the present time," he said. "I'm not going to say I'm never going to do it."