Cameras in the courtroom: It's 'not entertainment'
"What we have here," the grizzled editor says to the cub reporter, "is a case of the public's right to know running smack dab into its right not to care."
The quote, I believe, is from a long-ago comic strip. It came to mind recently in the wake of the first time still and video cameras were allowed in a Chicago-area courtroom.
The occasion was the arraignment a Naperville mother accused of stabbing to death her 7-year-old son and a 5-year-old girl in her care. Elzbieta Plackowska appeared Nov. 21 in Courtroom 4000 in the DuPage County Judicial Center in Wheaton before Judge Robert Kleeman. In the three-minute hearing, Plackowska pleaded not guilty to all counts, a new hearing date was set for Jan. 4 and other procedural matters were ironed out. The obvious drama and tragedy of the case aside, it was a pretty underwhelming first foray into a new era, as prosecutors and defense attorneys and a Polish translator quietly hashed out the details.
Illinois is a late participant in the world of courtroom cameras, with the state Supreme Court just this year giving the all-clear to proceed on an experimental basis. Cameras already have been allowed in 36 states and have been a courtroom fixture, for instance, in neighboring Iowa since 1979.
So, we gave the matter prominent attention and play. Josh Stockinger, who covers the DuPage court system, did an in-depth story in September explaining how courtroom cameras finally were wending their way to the Chicago area. He did a Page 1 story the day before the recorded Plackowska hearing, which likewise played on the front page.
This seemed like a good time to take the pulse of our readers in our daily online poll. The results were a bit of a surprise, with fewer than half our readers showing any degree of interest in watching video broadcasts of court procedures. But the big shocker to many of us in the newsroom was that the most respondents, almost 43 percent, opined that cameras should not be allowed in courtrooms. Our poll is a multiple choice, and we don't attempt to capture an explanation for our readers' views. But suffice it to say, it would seem many people don't care to watch courtroom proceedings or don't even think they should be broadcast.
Furthermore, there's no guarantee all cases will be available for the media to record. A week after the landmark Plackowska hearing, ABC 7 Chicago asked to record a hearing for 16-year-old Logan Krogman, who is charged as an adult with reckless homicide in the death of a friend. Krogman was 15 when prosecutors say he took a high-speed drive with his parents' car and crashed into a house in the Stonebridge subdivision in Aurora. Devin Meadows, 15, was ejected from the car and killed.
The Supreme Court gives individual judges considerable leeway in deciding, case by case, whether cameras should be allowed. So, with prosecutors and defense attorneys also objecting, Judge Daniel Guerin ruled that cameras were not going to be allowed in the Krogman hearing. He cited the age of the defendant, saying "certain protections" are afforded to minors in adult court. For instance, he said, they're given mandatory legal counsel and are segregated from adults when housed in the county lockup. Guerin's ruling can't be appealed, but media are free to ask to cover future hearings.
What remains to be seen is how hard and how often print and broadcast media push for in-courtroom photography. The novelty might wear off, and truthfully much of what goes on in the courtroom is pretty mundane. There's also the prospect that the people in charge will decide we're not welcome. As DuPage State's Attorney Bob Berlin put it, "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."