MORRISON, Ill. — A new rule allowing cameras in some Illinois courtrooms passed one of its first major tests in Nicholas Sheley’s murder trial in Whiteside County, key players in the case say.
After a trial that included a week of jury selection and six days of testimony, Sheley was convicted Tuesday of first-degree murder, residential burglary and home invasion in connection with the June 23, 2008, death of Russell Reed, 93, of Sterling.
Whiteside County State’s Attorney Gary Spencer said he had concerns before the case started about whether allowing TV and still cameras into the courtroom during the trial would interfere with the state’s ability to give Sheley a fair trial.
After the trial was over, Spencer said he didn’t think the cameras had an impact.
“I didn’t really have a problem with it,” Spencer said. “It is the wave of the future, and we’re going to have to get used to it.”
In January, the Illinois Supreme Court initiated a pilot program that allows media cameras in courtrooms in participating judicial circuits. The 14th Judicial Circuit, which includes Rock Island, Whiteside, Mercer and Henry counties, was the first to volunteer for the program.
Spencer said he did have concerns that a tripod used for the TV camera in the courtroom was an impediment to people trying to enter and exit the small Whiteside County courtroom.
He said a single camera mounted on the wall and controlled remotely from the media room that was set up in the courthouse law library would have been less of an obstruction.
The Supreme Court program allows potential witnesses to ask to be exempted from being filmed or photographed during trials and leaves that decision to the presiding judge.
Two state witnesses whose work as law enforcement officers sometimes includes undercover work were not allowed to be filmed or photographed, according to a ruling from Circuit Judge Jeffery O’Connor, who presided over the case before stepping aside in August because of health concerns.
Circuit Judge F. Michael Meersman took over the case and declined during the trial to revisit O’Connor’s rulings on which witnesses could be photographed, although he did rule that one state witness who was concerned about being filmed would be excluded from being recorded by TV cameras. He allowed her to be photographed by still cameras.
Spencer said he planned to call another witness who flatly refused to testify if she was going to be photographed. Because she was a corroborative witness and not essential to the state’s case, Spencer said he chose not to have her testify.
O’Connor said during pretrial proceedings that potential witnesses asking not to be photographed would have to have a legitimate reason.
Spencer said Friday he would have liked to see O’Connor be more lenient in excusing potential witnesses from being photographed, and he hopes the courts would come up with a way to handle the concerns of “evidently tender” witnesses.
Sheley’s attorney, Jeremy Karlin, said he had concerns that allowing cameras in the courtroom would make it more difficult for his client to get a fair trial, saying it put “yet another moving part in a case that had a lot of moving parts.”
Although he said Friday he still had some of those concerns, he thought the use of cameras in the courtroom during the trial went well, calling it “a successful experiment.”
Karlin said he thought showing video clips of testimony from the trial during the nightly newscasts brought transparency to the legal system.
He said, however, that the publicity of Sheley’s trial in the death of Reed will make it that much more difficult to seat a jury in Whiteside County for Sheley’s next trial in the same county on charges related to the deaths of four people who were found dead in a Rock Falls apartment.
“That’s the trade-off,” Karlin said.
Meersman said Friday he had presided over cases in Rock Island County where television cameras were present earlier in the year and didn’t notice them in the courtroom during the Sheley case.
Mike Ortiz of KWQC-TV, who served as the local media coordinator for the Sheley case, said other than a few minor technical difficulties, the Sheley case went smoothly. Ortiz said he didn’t hear any complaints from court officials or members of the media about how the case was handled.
“I think everything went great,” he said.
Jan Touney, executive editor of the Quad-City Times, praised the cooperation of area media in sharing the responsibilities for taking photos and video.
“This trial took place during the waning days of an intense political campaign, and it was great to see the area newspapers and television stations work together to bring this trial to the public,” she said. “The images from the courtroom gave our readers and viewers a unique window into the judicial process in Illinois.”
Joe Tybor, a spokesman for the Illinois Supreme Court, said he has heard from those involved with the case that the use of cameras in the courtroom went well.
Tybor said other Illinois circuits are seeking to join the pilot program. A murder trial in Kankakee County last week was streamed live on the Internet, and portions of the trial were broadcast live on some Chicago television stations, Tybor said.
He said DuPage County has been approved for the program, and Cook County also hopes to begin allowing cameras in the courtroom for some cases by the end of the year.
Iowa has allowed cameras in its courts since 1980.