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Sheley trial first big test of cameras in Illinois courts

CHICAGO – The latest trial of alleged serial killer Nicholas Sheley will attract widespread interest as it gets under way in rural northwestern Illinois – and not only because of the sensational subject matter. It also is the most highly anticipated test of an ongoing experiment with cameras in Illinois courts.

Cameras aren’t allowed during jury selection, which begins in earnest today with one-on-one questioning of potential jurors; would-be panelists filled out questionnaires Friday.

Cameras will start rolling during opening statements, expected a week from Monday. That’s when court officials will be watching to see if the expanded media presence in any way disrupts proceedings – the fear of some judges and attorneys.

Among those looking on will be the architect of the ambitious project, Illinois Supreme Court Chief Justice Thomas Kilbride, and the chief judge of Cook County’s court system, Timothy Evans. Evans will look to the Sheley trial for tips on how to mix cameras smoothly into trial rooms if and when the program is approved for his media-rich jurisdiction.

“I don’t think we have had anything else as high profile. ... Sheley adds a new element of media (interest),” Kilbride said in a recent telephone interview, agreeing the trial may pose the biggest test yet.

Sheley, 33, is accused of bludgeoning to death eight people during a 2008 killing spree through Illinois and Missouri that lasted several days.

The trial at the Whiteside County Courthouse in Morrison is for the death of Russell Reed, 93, of Sterling – whose badly beaten body was found in the trunk of his car.

Last year, jurors convicted Sheley of killing Ronald Randall, 65, of Galesburg, in the first of what will be a series of trials in the case.

It took place before the Illinois Supreme Court launched the cameras-in-court policy in January, one that, if it goes well, could see Illinois permanently join the majority of states that already permit camera coverage of trials. Currently, only about a dozen states still prohibit the practice.

One concern is that Sheley might be tempted to play to the cameras – to his detriment in jurors’ eyes. At one 2009 hearing, Sheley began screaming at a judge, calling him “stupid and ignorant” before being dragged from the room. To guard against such outbursts at his first trial, Sheley was outfitted with a stun belt, a device worn under his clothes, that allowed bailiffs to deliver a sharp electrical shock by remote control.

Kilbride, speaking Friday, said the pilot project has had a good track record so far. To date, the Illinois Supreme Court has approved cameras for courts in 23 of the state’s 102 counties. They include Winnebago County and Henry County, which, like Whiteside County, hugs the Iowa border in the northwest.

“We still need more time on the track to get (full) results,” he said. “So far, so good.”

While Sheley’s is the highest profile trial to allow cameras in Illinois, it’s not the first. Among the handful of trials that already featured cameras in court was the Henry County fraud trial of Kristin Holzman. The 39-year-old Geneseo woman was charged with faking a disease to defraud victims out of $16,000.

During her sentencing, a camera mounted high near the judge’s bench zoomed in on tears welling in Holzman’s eyes as she pleaded for mercy.

“This crime that I committed is not who I am,” she said, her voice quivering.

In the same footage, shown on local TV news afterward, cameras captured the visibly angry Judge Charles Stengel minutes later as he glared at Holzman and handed her a three-year prison term.

“You’re a complete fraud, and I have no compassion for you,” he said.

There have been few notable glitches in the pilot project, said Kilbride’s spokesman, Joe Tybor. A relatively minor one was some photographers using older cameras with noisy shutters, generating audible sounds that could potentially distract witnesses or jurors.

The ultimate test will be Cook County. The county’s courts serve more than 5 million people in Chicago and surrounding suburbs. It includes 400 judges and multiple courthouses, and it is set in one of the nation’s largest media markets. Like elsewhere, some of the circuit’s judges have expressed reservations about the idea, including whether media frenzy around a highly publicized case could spill into the courtroom itself.

Because of those potential problems, court officials have deliberately held off approving cameras for Cook County courts until now. Evans, though, is supportive and said the circuit could be ready by year’s end.

In a telephone interview, he said he hopes to travel the 120 miles from Chicago to Morrison to attend the trial for a day. “Just to see how it works,” he said.

“You can rest assured we will have sensational trials here (in Chicago) with even more media participation,” he said. “So my thought is, I’ll benefit from these examples.”

Kilbride said he decided it was better to start in less populous counties. It was his own days as a lawyer in the Quad Cities area that helped convince him cameras in courts was the right policy. He said he regularly watched TV news featuring footage from inside nearby Iowa courts.

That same familiarity among Quad Cities-area reporters, attorneys and judges was also one reason Kilbride singled out courts in northwestern Illinois to be in the vanguard employing cameras.

Kilbride said there are no fixed timeframes or deadlines for further expansion of the project, and that he won’t force any resistant judges or courthouses to embrace it.

“The folks on the ground have to buy into it,” he said.

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