DeKALB – Benjamin Black walked up to the stand last month at the Kane County Courthouse ready to tell everyone in the courtroom he was pleading guilty.
It was a moment captured on camera.
Black, 29, admitted to driving with heroin in his system during the Feb. 27 crash that killed 11-year-old Matthew Ranken and severely injured 19-year-old Teale Noble, both of Sycamore.
According to some circuit court officials, Black’s case was a rare one.
“There have been very few cases where media has sought approval [for cameras] by the court,” said Duke Harris, assistant state’s attorney in DeKalb County. “It’s not going to be routine cases, but the higher-profile cases where the public has more interest.”
Since DeKalb County courts joined a pilot program allowing cameras in the courtroom Jan. 24, few local cases have been documented on camera.
Those that were include the Northern Illinois University hazing cases in which four of five Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity members were accused of hazing a 19-year-old NIU student who later died; the William “Billy” Curl case, in which the 36-year-old DeKalb resident pleaded guilty to the 2010 murder of Antinette “Toni” Keller; and the ongoing case of Patricia Schmidt, 48, who faces charges in connection with a traffic crash that killed Timothy Getzelman and Alexis Weber in 2011.
It has been about two years since the Illinois Supreme Court filed an order for a pilot program allowing cameras in the courtroom.
Since the order was filed, 13 of the 24 circuit courts in Illinois have approved extended media coverage, allowing still and video photography inside the state’s courts for the first time in living memory.
DeKalb County, which shares the 23rd circuit court with Kendall County, approved the measure Jan. 24.
DJ Tegeler is Black’s attorney. He said the presence of a camera does not affect how attorneys approach the case.
“I’d be shocked if an experienced attorney or judge played to the camera in the courtroom,” he said. “Everyone’s professional, and we do our job.”
Under the rules in DeKalb County, reporters must apply to bring cameras into a hearing or trial at least two weeks in advance. Presiding Judge Robbin Stuckert, 23rd Judicial Circuit Chief Judge Tim McCann and the judge involved then review the request.
Attorneys and all parties involved also may object to having cameras.
Journalists can’t choose any case to cover. State law prohibits media cameras in hearings for juvenile, divorce, adoption, child custody, evidence supression or trade secret cases.
The pilot program prohibits taking any images of jurors to protect their privacy.
Cameras could provide an educational tool for those unfamiliar with court proceedings, Tegeler said.
Joe McMahon, Kane County state’s attorney, agrees.
He said other states have been using cameras in the courtroom for years, and Illinois could learn from those states.
“They found ways to make sure the process is fair, respectful and respects the privacy rights of victims,” he said. “We’ll work through those issues. I’m hopeful.”
Tegeler said the media should also focus on covering civil cases and small claims court cases so the public can learn how things work and so that it will take away the fear of being in court.
Tegeler said he thinks media cameras in courts are here to stay in Illinois as long as they are used properly.
“I don’t think [the public] realizes how hard attorneys and judges work at their craft and how detailed and long a trial can really be,” he said. “I think, in that respect, [cameras] can really be good tool.”