The convictions of spree killer Nicholas T. Sheley in the deaths of four people in their Rock Falls, Illinois, apartment in late June 2008 will stand, an Illinois appellate court has ruled.
The Third District Court of Appeals, Ottawa, in a 2-1 decision filed Oct. 27 upheld the convictions on four counts of first-degree murder in the deaths of Brock Branson, 29; his fiancée, Kilynna Blake, 20; her 2-year-old son, Dayan; and Kenneth Ulve, 25.
Sheley, 38, was tried and convicted in 2014 in Rock Island County after Judge Jeffrey O’Connor, then the chief judge of the 14th Judicial Circuit, granted his request to move the trial out of Whiteside County.
Sheley argued on appeal in that his motion for a mistrial should have been granted because a “reversible error” occurred when O’Connor fell asleep while jurors were viewing video evidence at trial.
After the video ended, a prosecutor from the state attorney general’s office asked the judge to turn the lights back on. O’Connor did not answer, according to the appellate court opinion.
“Judge?” asked Sheley’s attorney, Jeremy Karlin of Galesburg, Illinois. “Judge O’Connor?”
“Judge, could we get the lights back on?” the prosecutor asked.
“Hmm,” O’Connor replied, according to the appellate court opinion.
After a lunch break, Karlin made a record of the incident and noted his belief that the judge had fallen asleep on more than one occasion, according to the appellate court opinion.
The next day, Karlin asked for a mistrial.
In denying the motion, O’Connor said that the allegations that he had fallen asleep on multiple occasions were “feckless, factually unsupported, and, in fact, factually inaccurate because I am the one that knows.”
The judge also said that at no time did he ever lose control of the courtroom proceedings, according to the appellate court opinion.
“No one spoke in the courtroom during this deposition,” the judge said. “There were no objections, there was nothing for the Court to rule on other than to sit there and listen to what this deposition witness had to say, and that was the end of that.”
In the appellate court opinion, Justice Daniel Schmidt wrote that O’Connor did not abuse his discretion in denying the motion for a mistrial because Sheley failed to show that he was prejudiced and that he provided no further details regarding other alleged incidents where the judge fell asleep during the trial.
“Having found that the issue of a judge falling asleep during trial is subject to harmless error analysis, we determine that the judge’s falling asleep in the instant case was harmless,” Schmidt wrote.
“It is undisputed that neither party called up on the judge to make any evidentiary rulings during that time. Additionally, the evidence of defendant’s guilt was overwhelming.”
Schmidt further wrote that even if jurors were aware that the judge fell asleep, they likely attributed it to the darkness of the room and fatigue, rather than a lack of interest in the proceedings.
"There is nothing in the record to indicate that the jury was aware of the incident," Schmidt wrote.
Justice Mary O’Brien disagreed and wrote that it was “highly unlikely” that the jury did not notice that the judge fell asleep.
“The judge falling asleep could have given the jurors the impression that the trial was unimportant or that they did not need to pay close attention to the testimony of the witness,” O’Brien wrote.
Sheley is serving four life sentences in the deaths of Branson, the Blakes and Ulve.
He also is serving life sentences in the deaths of Russell Reed, 93, of rural Sterling, Illinois; Ronald Randall, 65, of Galesburg; and Jill and Tom Estes, both 54, of Sherwood, Arkansas, who were killed in Festus, Missouri.
Prosecutors have said the eight were killed during a drug- and alcohol-fueled killing spree in late June 2008.
Sheley is serving his sentence at the Pontiac (Illinois) Correctional Center, according to online records.
O’Connor has since stepped down as chief judge and now is the presiding judge in Henry County, Illinois.
In December 2014, Judge Walter Braud took over as chief judge.