A Naperville mother accused of murdering her son and another child pleaded not guilty today to all counts of murder -- a hearing in which cameras were allowed for the first time in a Chicago-area courtroom.
As one still camera and one video camera recorded the event, Elzbieta Plackowska appeared before DuPage County Judge Robert Kleeman in blue jail garb. She was arraigned on 10 counts of first-degree murder -- five counts each for her 7-year-old son Justin and 5-year-old Olivia Dworakowski. Plackowska also pleaded not guilty to two counts of aggravated cruelty on charges of stabbing to death two family dogs.
For the first time, Olivia's mother, Marta Dworakowski, attended the court proceedings, but she has asked for privacy from the media.
Plackowska did not react noticeably to the cameras. They were pointed at her as she was brought out of a holding area by sheriff's deputies. She was assisted by a Polish-speaking interpreter.
The hearing was attended by several courthouse dignitaries, including Chief Judge John Elsner, who said he was pleased with the first run.
"I think it went very smoothly and the media was very professional," Elsner said.
Also in attendance was Illinois Supreme Court spokesman Joseph Tybor, DuPage court administrator John Lapinski and Public Defender Jeff York. Dozens of media members packed the courtroom gallery, which also drew other prosecutors and local attorneys.
State's Attorney Bob Berlin said he was turning over to the defense about 40 CDs and DVDs containing crime-scene photos and interviews with the defendant. There are about 150 pages of police reports.
Senior Assistant Public Defender Michael Mara said he will need time to review the documents.
Judge Kleeman also agreed that jail and medical records for Plackowska could be turned over to a psychiatrist retained by the prosecution to evaluate her. Berlin said the doctor has already met with Plackowska once but the process could take months.
Cameras were trained on Plackowska as she was led into court. She and the attorneys were photographed from behind while they stood at Kleeman's bench. The media initially wanted two additional cameras next to the bench, but Kleeman denied the request Tuesday, citing concerns they could be a distraction.
The hearing, which was recorded by WGN TV and The Associated Press, lasted roughly three minutes. The next court date is Jan. 4.
Plackowska's attorney, Mara, gave a brief statement afterward about the case.
"What happened here is a tragedy but it's important to remember not to rush to judgment," he said.
Mara said it's possible the coverage could affect his client's case but his focus is on moving ahead with discovery and his own investigation. He also predicted the case "is going to take a long time. There's a lot that's going to happen."
Berlin said today's arraignment "was like any other arraignment we do -- really no different from the 3,000 arraignments we do here each year. Honestly, I didn't even notice the cameras. It didn't change anything."
He added, "I'm in favor of transparency. My only concern is that it can be a distraction for any of the parties in court. What happens in court is serious business. It's not entertainment."
Tybor, the state supreme court spokesman, said cameras are operating in 23 or 24 Illinois counties now, and he's unaware of any major problems. He said it's important "not to lose sight" of why media are there in the first place, to provide a "real-time, real life glimpse of what happens" in court.
"Any court proceeding is a solemn event, sometimes over very tragic circumstances. It looks like cameras so far can be introduced in trial courts without risking important rights and undue distractions."
Tybor said the pilot program is inching its way toward Chicago and the mammoth Cook County court system. The supreme court hopes to have cameras there by the end of the year. He called DuPage's test a "steppingstone to Chicago."
In the suburbs, only DuPage and Cook counties have made formal applications for court cameras. Kane County court officials have said they plan to apply, and Lake and McHenry counties are exploring it.
The first circuits approved in Illinois included Winnebago, Rock Island, Carroll, Jo Daviess and other western counties, partly because of their proximity to Iowa's Quad Cities, where court cameras have been used since 1979. Downstate Madison County, approved in March, was selected in part because it's close to St. Louis, where court cameras have been allowed for years.
Last month, the murder trial of Nicholas Sheley in Morrison, Ill., became one of the first high-profile cases to be photographed. Sheley, charged in a two-state killing spree, was ultimately convicted of beating an elderly man to death in Kankakee.