Crime & Courts

Cameras in court pass first test, but county to wait and see

Nicholas T. Sheley was on trial for murder earlier this month in Whiteside County – and the media had a trial of its own.

Sheley was convicted of beating 93-year-old farmer Russell Reed in 2008 during a weeklong killing spree that allegedly left eight people dead.

The trial was considered to be the first major test of cameras in the courtroom since the Illinois Supreme Court created a pilot program in January allowing still photography and video cameras, although on a limited basis.

Illinois has allowed news cameras in the Supreme Court and appellate courts since 1983, but was one of 14 states where cameras in trial courtrooms were not allowed or were restricted so much they were hardly used.

By most accounts, coverage of Sheley’s trial was a success.

Alex Paschal, chief photographer for Shaw Media-owned Sauk Valley News, was in the courtroom most days.

“We considered this to be our story because it happened in our backyard,” Paschal said. “So we were going to agree to put up our time and effort, much more so than probably some other papers would have.”

Jurors were not allowed to be photographed or taped.

“The courts have really made it clear that if there’s a shot of the jury, all bets are off and we’re basically going to get booted,” Paschal said. “So we were very careful about that.”

Media members met ahead of the trial to discuss rotations. A special device was built so that they could get audio and video feeds. A website was created to share photos.

Mike Ortiz, chief photographer for KWQC-TV, served as the media coordinator. He said there were some minor glitches with audio in the beginning, but the kinks were worked out.

“I want to stress that in our area, we have really worked together to make this all happen,” Ortiz said. “I think that’s what makes us unique, that even though we’re competitors ... in this situation we really had to come together.”

Illinois Supreme Court spokesman Joseph Tybor echoed sentiment that coverage of the Sheley trial went well, providing no reason why cameras shouldn’t be allowed in the courtroom.

He said extended media coverage is creeping closer to Cook County. Kane, Kendall and DeKalb counties all plan to apply to the pilot program soon; DuPage is already on board.

Not quite so for McHenry County.

Court Administrator Dan Wallis said that after the first of the year, officials would have meetings with members of the bar association and media.

“This is a tremendous shift in culture,” Wallis said. “This is something very new, and to be quite honest, it’s something that many of the judges thought wouldn’t happen in their lifetimes.”

Local attorneys, however, already are getting a taste of courtroom cameras in other counties.

Last month, a camera filmed Woodstock-based attorney Dan Hofmann when he and co-counsel Matthew Haiduk went to trial in Winnebago County on a case where a teacher was accused of battering a student. Aaron Oetting was acquitted after the bench trial, meaning it was held in front of a judge rather than a jury.

Hofmann said he barely noticed the cameras, although he insists the camera adds 60 pounds, not 30.

Hofmann typically doesn’t stand in one place, instead pacing around the courtroom.

“It may have been a problem for the cameraman because I walk around a lot, and I think they might have gotten dizzy following me,” he said. “I’ve watched other trials that are televised, and it does seem like the attorneys are anchored to a podium.”

But there were no restrictions placed on Hofmann’s movement, and he didn’t feel like the cameras were obtrusive. He said he is OK with filming future cases.

“I don’t feel like I played to the cameras or the prosecutor played to the camera,” he said.

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