Daily Herald opinion: Denying media access to records in murder case could prove a slippery slope
There has been a welcome trend in recent years of allowing cameras in courtrooms. It is catching on slowly but surely in Cook, Kane, McHenry, Lake, DuPage and Will counties.
The state supreme court has given circuit judges the latitude to experiment with allowing news operations to select pool photographers to unobtrusively photograph court proceedings. The news media interested in covering a case make a request, the attorneys weigh in and then it's up to the judge to decide.
This type of openness has been refreshing. Photography has provided a window into the judiciary in a way courtroom sketches could not.
And that's what makes what is happening in Will County so curious.
Reporters from our newspaper and other media outlets have been covering preliminary hearings in a 50-year-old murder case since the arrest of Barry L. Whelpley, 77, in his home north of Minneapolis in 2021.
He stands accused of raping and killing 15-year-old Julie Ann Hanson in Naperville. She disappeared while riding her bike to her brother's baseball game. Her body was discovered a day later. She had been sexually assaulted and stabbed 36 times.
Our reporters filed a Freedom of Information Act request for access to Naperville police reports on the case.
This is standard procedure for the news media, and it would have been SOP for the Naperville Police Department to release at least redacted reports -- as it was prepared to do.
But Will County Assistant State's Attorney Chris Koch asked Judge David Carlson to halt the release of those reports for fear pretrial publicity would endanger Whelpley's right to a fair trial. Whelpley's attorney, Terry Ekl, agreed. The judge then ordered that Naperville police should not release the reports.
This from the county that tried household name Drew Peterson, whose story was fresher and which drew a media circus.
The Whelpley case has ethical implications far beyond solving the crime of Julie Ann Hanson's murder. Police worked with a genealogy company to search for a match from a DNA sample collected from her body. It found potential matches to Whelpley and his deceased brother and father.
Will County courts don't see their cases appealed because of pretrial publicity. Why is this case such a concern?
Withholding information in this way is a slippery slope. Who's to say this won't become habit?
Why is this case being treated differently from other murder cases?
It shouldn't be.