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Crime & Courts

New rules govern media in local courts

SYCAMORE – Imagine seeing the look on Billy Curl’s face when he learns the verdict in a trial on allegations he murdered Northern Illinois University freshman Antinette “Toni” Keller in October 2010.

That image could be shown on news stations and in newspapers under new rules 23rd Judicial Circuit Chief Judge Tim McCann is expected to sign today. The circuit, which comprises DeKalb and Kendall counties, was accepted last week into the Illinois Supreme Court’s pilot program allowing media to record and photograph inside local courtrooms in most instances.

DeKalb County State’s Attorney Richard Schmack is a little concerned about maintaining jurors’ privacy – the program prohibits taking any images of them – but overall said he believed the program would be implemented well here.

“It will be good for the public to see what do we really do rather than fictional, choreographed trials,” Schmack said.

DeKalb County and 27 others in Illinois have been accepted into the pilot program the Illinois Supreme Court started about a year ago. Kane County judicial leaders expect to apply for the program this spring after tweaking rules a joint committee created before DeKalb and Kendall counties split off from the 16th Judicial Circuit, leaving only Kane County in that circuit, McCann said.

News photographers aren’t allowed to pop into any courtroom they desire whenever they want, though. The law prohibits media cameras in hearings for juvenile, divorce, adoption, child custody, evidence suppression or trade secret cases.

Under Supreme Court rules, journalists need to apply to bring cameras into a hearing or trial at least two weeks before it starts. The judge involved in the case, as well as McCann and DeKalb County Presiding Judge Robbin Stuckert, will review the request.

Attorneys and all the parties involved also will receive a copy, and defendants and witnesses can object to having the cameras and recording equipment there.

The judges’ decisions cannot be appealed.

Under the rules, media likely would not record sexual abuse victims, victims of other forcible felonies, police informants, undercover agents and relocated witnesses.

McCann also supports giving special consideration for the witness’ age and thinking about whether the news images and recordings could affect future police investigations.

“You’re probably never going to get to cover a 12-year-old who says something bad happened to her,” McCann said.

But he expects the Illinois Supreme Court’s pilot program ultimately will become a permanent fixture in county courthouses.

“I think what you’ll see is see this thing tweaked,” McCann said. “You see it modified a little bit, but I think it’s going to be a long-term program for us.”

Media coverage of Nicholas Sheley’s murder trial in Whiteside County Courthouse in northwest Illinois attracted some media attention itself in October and November. Sheley, 33, was accused of beating a 93-year-old Sterling man to death in 2008; he was one of eight people Sheley was accused of killing over a matter of days in Illinois and Missouri.

During that trial, and those throughout Illinois since the program started, there weren’t any notable problems with having cameras in the courtrooms, Illinois Supreme Court spokesman Joe Tybor said. He attributed any complaints to minor issues surrounding journalists who were confused or uninformed about specific rules.

“There has been nothing to indicate that this isn’t going work,” Tybor said. “The measure of success – and the reason why it is a pilot project – is really to determine whether cameras and all that go along with it can coexist in Illinois courtrooms [without sacrificing justice and fairness.]”

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