Chicago area readies first televised court hearing

WHEATON – Nearly two decades after the nation watched O.J. Simpson struggle to put on the famous glove, Chicago television viewers will get their first opportunity Wednesday to see a criminal defendant stand before a local courtroom judge.

Judge Robert Kleeman ruled Tuesday to allow one television camera and one still camera in his DuPage County courtroom for the first live broadcast of legal proceedings in the Chicago area. A suburban Chicago woman was expected to enter a plea Wednesday in the stabbing deaths of her 7-year-old son and a 5-year-old girl she was babysitting.

Prosecutors say the woman, Elzbieta Plackowska, stabbed her son about 100 times and girl 50 times, at least partly out of anger at her husband.

During Tuesday's hearing a media coordinator told the judge that journalists wanted to put two sets of cameras in his court – one near the witness stand and another next to the jury box. But deputy public defender Michael Mara worried the one near the witness stand would be distracting. The judge agreed.

"I don't think that's necessary," Kleeman said.

When Plackowska enters her plea Wednesday, one still camera and one television camera will be directly behind her as she faces the judge.

DuPage County State's Attorney Robert Berlin said he was satisfied the cameras won't be a problem during the arraignment. But Berlin said if and when the case goes to trial he would want the cameras moved away from the jury box. Berlin was worried about shutter noises from the cameras but photographers had equipment that muffled the sounds.

Tony Capriolo, the media coordinator, said he was disappointed in the judge's ruling because the spot near the witness stand would allow the public to see the faces of Plackowska and the attorneys, while the camera position the judge approved does not,

"This is only going to give us a view of the backs of heads," he said.

He said he recognizes that for judges and attorneys the cameras represent a dramatic change that makes those involved in legal proceedings that have never been photographed a bit leery. The only way that more cameras will be allowed is for everyone involved to see for themselves how unobtrusive televising and photographing the hearings actually is, he said.

Capriolo also said that the local television stations are expected to stream the hearing live on their websites, but he did not know if any of them were planning on carrying it live on television.

Wednesday's arraignment is the highest-profile test yet of a pilot project launched by the Illinois Supreme Court last January to allow media organizations to electronically record court proceedings. Until recently, Illinois was among about a dozen states that do not allow cameras in courtrooms at all.

The pilot project, in which 23 counties have been approved for cameras, has resulted in cameras inside courtrooms during two recent murder trials, with officials saying that both cases went smoothly and that the cameras did not cause any major disruptions. But those trials — one in Kankakee and the other in the far western edge of Illinois – did not attract the kind of media attention expected from one of the biggest media markets in the United States for the Naperville double-murder case.

The case also will be watched closely by the legal community in Cook County, which soon expects to bring court cameras into Chicago itself. The county's chief judge, Timothy Evans, submitted a cameras-in-the-court application soon after the high court announced the pilot program, but the application was deferred because the court wanted to see how things played out in the test counties.

Every state allows some form of recording and broadcasting in at least some court proceedings, with cameras in most states, said Ben Holden, the director of the National Center for the Courts and Media, in Reno, Nev. According to one article by the former director at the center, the first time a hearing was televised was in 1953 in Oklahoma.

Chicago is not the only big city where cameras have not been allowed. Cameras are not allowed, for example, in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh or anywhere else in Pennsylvania.

But they have been a big part of some of the nation's most sensational trials, with the most sensational of all in 1995 when former football great O.J. Simpson was acquitted on charges that he killed his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and a friend of hers.

The nation saw Simpson struggling with the glove prosecutors said he left at the scene after the slayings and attorney Johnnie Cochran telling the jury, "If it doesn't fit, you must acquit."

Since then, some of the country's biggest criminal cases have been broadcast live, from that of Casey Anthony, the Florida woman who was acquitted of murdering her 2-year-old daughter to the verdicts in the trial of New York City police officers charged in the shooting of an unarmed African immigrant Amadou Diallo. More recently, cameras have been in the courtroom for appearances by a man charged in the 1979 slaying of 6-year-old Etan Patz in New York.

In Los Angeles, where cameras have captured hearings of all sorts of celebrities, ranging from music producer Phil Spector to Lindsay Lohan, cameras have become part of the courtroom landscape.

"We have cameras in the courtroom somewhere in the county every couple of days, if not daily," said Mary Hearn, a spokeswoman for the Los Angeles Superior Court. "It's not a big deal."

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