CHICAGO – A judge's effort to put cameras inside Cook County courtrooms got a big push from a small western Illinois county.
Observers reported few problems in the just-completed murder trial of Nicholas Sheley in Whiteside County – just the kind of thing the state Supreme Court wanted to hear before it would consider allowing television and still cameras inside courtrooms of the state's largest county and one of the nation's largest media markets.
"From all indications, the Sheley trial went well," said Joseph Tybor, a spokesman for the state Supreme Court.
Sheley, who was convicted of first-degree murder last week in the slaying of 93-year-old Russell Reed, grabbed headlines throughout the Midwest in 2008, when he allegedly went on a shooting spree in Illinois and Missouri, leaving 8 people dead.
His trial was a significant chapter in Illinois' cameras-in-the-courtroom debate, as it was easily the highest-profile one to take place after January, when the high court embarked on a pilot project in several counties. Tybor said things also went smoothly in a Kankakee murder trial, which was streamed live on the Internet and, at times, broadcast live on a local television station.
Together, the two trials may add up to good news for Cook County's chief judge, Timothy Evans. He submitted a cameras-in-court application soon after the high court announced the pilot program. It was deferred, though, as the court wanted to see how the program played out in the test counties.
But it's unclear how or when things would unfold in Cook County. Evans could not be reached for comment Monday. It is, however, a safe bet that with more than 400 judges, seven courthouses and hundreds of courtrooms, the process would be far more complicated than anywhere else in Illinois.
With Whiteside County's precedent set, it could mean the public will get an inside look at one of the biggest criminal cases in the Chicago area: The Naperville woman who is charged in DuPage County in the stabbing deaths of her 8-year-old son and a 5-year-old girl she was babysitting.
The county was recently allowed to take part in the pilot program.
"We have no objections at this point," said Paul Darrah, a spokesman for the state's attorney in DuPage County. "It is a possibility."
Whiteside County State's Attorney Gary Spencer said his concerns about cameras possibly interfering with Sheley's right to a fair trial largely disappeared as it unfolded.
"I didn't really have a problem with it," Spencer told the Quad City Times. "It is the wave of the future, and we're going to have to get used to it."
But Sheley's attorney said though the cameras were "a successful experiment," he is concerned that the publicity will make it more difficult to find impartial jurors for Sheley's future trials. One is set for next year in Whiteside County on four murder charges. He faces six more in all, in addition to his two murder convictions.
"I suspect that the next trial, as a result of this trial being televised and the refreshing of the case by all the media, it won't be possible to pick a new jury in Whiteside County," attorney Jeremy Karlin told The (Dixon) Telegraph.
Cook County certainly will run into concerns about who can and cannot be photographed. Anticipating the concerns of undercover officers and others, Illinois Supreme Court decided that potential witnesses will be given the opportunity to ask the presiding judges to forbid the media from photographing or filming their testimony.
Before the Sheley trial, a judge granted such requests made by two officers who sometimes work undercover. One witness was allowed to testify without being filmed by television cameras, but could be photographed for stills.
Tybor said in the Kankakee trial that the judge allowed a witness' no-photo request, but the media could use the audio of her testimony.