DuPage County likely next for courtroom cameras
Tina Lamonica apparently wasn't ready for her TV debut as the camera rolled for the first time inside a Winnebago County courtroom.
The 37-year-old murder suspect stunned onlookers when she collapsed face first in front of the judge -- a spectacle that made the Rockford evening news and had the defense team crying foul.
The July 5 court appearance was among the first in Illinois to be televised since the state Supreme Court opened trial courts to cameras on an experimental basis.
Since January, five circuits serving 13 counties have applied for and received the green light for expanded media coverage. DuPage County likely is next, court officials said, followed by Cook County sometime before the end of the year.
"We're in the process of addressing some possible logistical concerns that we feel need to be studied to ensure that both sides -- the prosecution and defense alike -- will continue to receive a fair trial in DuPage County," state's attorney spokesman Paul Darrah said. "Our office is in full support of transparency in government."
The program signals a dramatic shift for Illinois, which for decades resisted trial court photography, even as more than two-thirds of the country embraced it.
There still are detractors. But concerns about cameras interfering with the course of justice have largely fallen by the wayside as more states have used them without problems and as society has increasingly armed itself with recording devices, experts say.
"It's a changing mindset," said Steve Helle, a lawyer who teaches journalism and media law at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana. "What kid doesn't grow up today being filmed 24/7 by their parents? And people whip out their cellphones without provocation to start recording."
Illinois has allowed cameras in its Supreme Court and appellate courts since 1983. Until recently, it was one of only 14 states without regular photography in any of its judicial circuits.
Chief Justice Thomas Kilbride called the move "another step to bring transparency and more accountability to the Illinois court system."
"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, yet affords a closer look at the workings of our court system to the public through the eyes of the electronic news media and news photographers," he said in a statement.
The guiding policy is unique to Illinois but modeled after Iowa. It includes limitations that bar cameras from juvenile cases and family court matters, as well as evidence suppression hearings and trade-secret cases. No photography of testimony from sexual abuse victims is allowed unless the victim consents, and jurors cannot be photographed. Any witness or party to a case can object to the expanded coverage and take the matter to a hearing.
The first circuits approved were selected in part because of their proximity to Iowa's Quad Cities, where court cameras have been used since 1979 and the local media are familiar with how it works. Downstate Madison County, approved in March, is close to St. Louis, which has allowed court cameras for years.
In the suburbs, only DuPage and Cook counties have made formal applications. But Kane is expected to apply by the year's end, and Lake and McHenry counties are exploring the issue.
"The consensus here is that it's going to be something we're going to have to accommodate in the future," Lake County Chief Judge Fred Foreman said. "I think the important thing is that we address any important issues now so we can preserve the right to a fair trial, as well as open up the proceedings in court so people can see what's going on at their local courthouse."
DuPage County Judge John Kinsella headed up a committee studying the issue for the 18th Judicial Circuit. He predicts TV stations and newspapers will mostly want still photographs and brief segments of footage to accompany stories on high-profile cases. Gavel-to-gavel trial coverage will probably be "very rare," he said.
"The odds are, we're not going to have an O.J. Simpson kind of case," Kinsella said.
Supreme Court justices have deferred Cook County's application until more experiments are carried out in other counties. But Chief Judge Timothy Evans has said he hopes to have cameras in at least one courtroom by the end of the year.
"Cook County is huge, with more than 400 judges and seven buildings with courtrooms," Illinois Supreme Court spokesman Joe Tybor said. "It's a matter of getting both the media and the circuit court coordinated. What we've failed to have yet is a really high-profile trial of high media interest. We really haven't had the big test yet."
In Winnebago County, judges have approved at least 27 requests for camera coverage since June, said Deputy Court Administrator Tom Jakeway. Court officials "definitely felt a presence in the back of the room" at the July court appearance where Lamonica collapsed.
"It was a little unfortunate that it was our first step forward on this," he said. But overall, "it's been a positive experience so far. The more we go into the courtroom (with photographers), the more this seems normal."
Whether the coverage adds public insight to the judicial process largely will depend on how the media uses it, said David Taylor, a law professor at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb.
"So far, the only thing I've seen the media do with it on the nightly news is run a video behind the talking head who's giving the report of the story," he said. "Before, it seems this would have been a picture instead, but I don't know what that adds to understanding."
That said, "there's the general impetus that the workings of government should not be secret," he added. "I think a greater danger to the right to a fair trial is pretrial publicity" in general.
Helle, the U of I professor, said most people have never been in a courtroom, so any additional coverage "can only illuminate the judicial process."
"By and large, it's going to help the judicial system, warts and all," he said. "What I think the public is going to see is justice being done. For the most part, criminals are convicted, and so when people actually see that process taking place, I think they're going to be more confident in the judicial system. Right now, it's a mystery to most people."
Elgin defense attorney Glenn Jazwiec, who represents Lamonica, is among those opposed to cameras in court. His client, whose has been charged with using cocaine that led to the death of her infant daughter, has yet to stand trial but the public has already seen her faint in a bright red jail outfit.
"Now, if I go to jury selection, who hasn't seen that video?" Jazwiec said. "And even if I get her off the case, I might be able to expunge everything else, but I won't be able to expunge the video, which probably has now gone viral."
Other attorneys polled by the Daily Herald said they worry more about lawyers playing to the cameras than their clients' 6th Amendment rights being violated.
"It's going to change a lot of things in the sense it's going to be a little more theatrical," said Glen Ellyn defense attorney Brian Telander, a former Cook County prosecutor and DuPage judge who currently has five murder cases pending. "I actually don't think it's going to impact negatively on my clients' rights. It's going to be helpful because the more open the case is, the more fairness will come through. It will force everybody to be more open and honest, and I think that helps the defense."
Naperville defense attorney and former prosecutor Paul DeLuca also has handled some of the area's most high-profile cases. He said he sees "good and bad" in the camera program.
"The positive part is the public being more exposed to what goes on in a courtroom," DeLuca said. "What I don't like and what I think may happen is just the fact that a camera's in there might tend to maybe influence certain attorneys on how they act and react in court. It's almost like we have to wait and see."
Courtroom camera rundownHow it will work
An Illinois Supreme Court policy sets guidelines for cameras in the courtroom.
Ÿ Trial judge has authority whether to allow cameras
Ÿ Chief judge has discretion to bar extended coverage
Ÿ Media must request camera coverage at least 14 days before court event
Ÿ No more than two video cameras and two still photographers
Ÿ Sharing required when more media request coverage than policy allows
Ÿ Any witness or party to a case can object to coverage, take the matter to a hearing
Ÿ No photography of testifying sexual abuse victims unless victim consents
Ÿ No photography of jurors
Ÿ No photography in juvenile, divorce, adoption, child custody, evidence suppression and trade secret proceedings
Who has cameras
Since January, five circuits serving 13 counties have received the green light.
Ÿ The 14th Judicial Circuit in January became Illinois' first trial court to win approval; it comprises Henry, Mercer, Rock Island and Whiteside counties.
Ÿ The 21st Judicial Circuit was the next, in March, but only in Kankakee County criminal courts.
Ÿ The Third Judicial Circuit also won approval in March, but only in Madison County criminal courts.
Ÿ The 15th Judicial Circuit also was approved in March; it comprises Carroll, Jo Daviess, Lee, Ogle and Stevenson counties.
Ÿ The 17th Judicial Circuit in Boone and Winnebago counties won approval in April.