For Nicholas Sheley's June trial, the burden of finding those
answers falls to the technical services manager at the red-brick
county courthouse in Morrison -- a rural town in northwest Illinois
that's suddenly in the spotlight as officials statewide tune in to
see how the experiment plays out.
Standing in the courtroom that
will host Sheley's trial, court techie John Maas explained that the
plan is to place a TV camera amid the spectators' benches in the
back. They'll cut a hole in a ceiling tile and run a cable up, over
a hallway and back down into the courthouse library.
"It's all so new, we've got to improvise," Maas said.
Courthouses across the state will be scrambling alongside as they
try to conform to the Illinois Supreme Court's decision last month
to test cameras in state courts. Many buildings are more than a
century old and may have more trouble accommodating cameras than
Morrison's 25-year-old courthouse.
If all goes well -- and the practice doesn't undermine
defendants' rights to a fair trial -- the high court wants to
eventually pull Illinois out of the group of 14 states that bans
extensive media access in court.
To participate, a chief judge in one of the 23 districts must
apply with the high state court to participate. Jeffrey O'Connor --
the chief judge in the 14th Judicial District, which includes
Whiteside, Henry, Mercer and Rock Island counties -- did that within
days of the decision.
O'Connor is also Sheley's trial judge. With his apparent
enthusiasm for the program, it's little wonder he denied a motion at
a Friday hearing from both prosecutors and Sheley's lawyer to bar
cameras on grounds that media attention would make it more difficult
to choose an impartial jury for a subsequent murder trial for Sheley.
O'Connor told them that details of the disturbing allegations
against Sheley are already so widely known that footage from the
upcoming trial wouldn't "make one bit of difference."
Sheley is accused of killing eight people in Illinois and
Missouri over several days in June 2008 -- bludgeoning each one,
including a 2-year-old boy. He was convicted last year of killing
Ronald Randall, 65, of Galesburg.
The upcoming trial is for the death of 93-year-old Russell Reed,
of Sterling. O'Connor pushed the trial date back from March 5 to
June 11 on Friday to give the defense more time to prepare.
Defense attorney Jeremy Karlin said Friday he doesn't oppose the
cameras in principle, but he said his client's case was unique
because he will be tried again on related charges.
"Everyone's feeling their way how to do this with cameras -- and
no one really knows how it will affect witnesses, the judge,
attorneys or the defendant will react to them," he said. "This is
the wrong case to experiment on."
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Maas has a simple plan to avoid dozens of photographers and
videographers jockeying for position in the courtroom: Put TV and
radio producers in the law library, so they can all hook into the
"If it works the way we see it, there will be one guy standing
quietly at the back of the room with a camera on a tripod -- that's
it," he said.
That may not be a viable solution for older courthouses with
concrete walls, explained Victoria Bluedorn, a trial court
administrator for the 14th District.
"I'll bet three-fourths of Illinois courthouses were built in the
1800s," she said. "You'll need a diamond saw to get through their
walls. It could really be tough."
Instead, the courtrooms could install permanent camera and audio
systems capable of broadcasting to TV stations or mobile TV trucks.
But it'd be a strain on a small-town budget, as Mass says those run
about $25,000 per set.
Bluedorn attended recent meetings O'Connor held with local
reporters about how to meet the needs of the press without
disrupting the Sheley trial proceedings.
"The judge had no idea how all this should work -- so he asked
the media to tell him," she said. "And the local press have been
jewels. It's remarkable they've figured so much out in a single
There's pride, too, that this rural northwestern corner of
Illinois -- not the capital, not big-city Chicago -- is the vanguard
of such a historic change in the courts.
Bluedorn does not count herself among the skeptics who think the
experiment will fail.
"It's baby steps, sure," she said. "But everything is going so
well. In six months, we will have established a procedure and it
will be as normal as in any state with cameras."
By MICHAEL TARM]
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