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Cameras were on trial, too

State’s attorney’s opinion changed by experience

Whiteside County State's Attorney Gary Spencer addresses the media Tuesday afternoon following the verdict at the Nicholas Sheley murder trial at the Whiteside County Courthouse in Morrison. Spencer was pleased with how well the extended media coverage, allowing cameras in the courtroom, went during the trial. Spencer initially had been opposed to allowing cameras during court proceedings.
Whiteside County State's Attorney Gary Spencer addresses the media Tuesday afternoon following the verdict at the Nicholas Sheley murder trial at the Whiteside County Courthouse in Morrison. Spencer was pleased with how well the extended media coverage, allowing cameras in the courtroom, went during the trial. Spencer initially had been opposed to allowing cameras during court proceedings.

MORRISON – All eyes were on Nicholas T. Sheley this week as he was convicted of beating 93-year-old farmer Russell Reed to death in late June 2008.

It wasn’t just the sensational allegations against Sheley, who is accused of killing eight people during a weeklong killing spree, that kept his trial in the spotlight.

Video and still cameras from Sauk Valley Media and several Quad Cities media outlets were rolling during the first of what is expected to be two trials involving Sheley in Whiteside County.

This week’s trial was considered to be the first big test of cameras in the courtroom since the state Supreme Court launched a pilot program that allows “extended media coverage” using tools that went beyond notebooks and pens.

The principals involved in the Sheley case, from attorneys to law enforcement, said everything went smoothly.

Longtime Whiteside County State’s Attorney Gary Spencer, who will retire at the end of this month, had opposed allowing cameras in the courtroom, and he filed what’s known as a resistance.

Click here to see a post-verdict video interview with Gary Spencer

Seeing the process in action made him change his mind.

“I ultimately believe that they were done very well, they were very unobtrusive, and I can’t say that I still feel the same way I did initially,” Spencer told reporters after the verdict. “You folks all did a great job.”

On Jan. 24, the Supreme Court announced the pilot program, which allows still and video cameras, as well as other recording equipment, in the courtroom during certain trial court proceedings.

A week later, the 14th Judicial Circuit, which includes Whiteside County, was the first circuit approved to participate.

In March, the 15th Judicial Circuit, which includes Carroll, Lee, and Ogle counties, was approved. Now, 23 of 102 counties are taking part .

Aside from filming and photographing the trial, reporters also blogged or Tweeted the action as it unfolded, giving news junkies up-to-the-minute coverage.

Joe Tybor, a spokesman for the state Supreme Court, said he was unable to attend the trial but heard everything went well. The court will receive a report later this month from the circuit, he said.

“What’s important in terms of the pilot project is to see how cameras co-existed with the trial of Mr. Sheley,” Tybor said. “At the same time, it’s important to say that the Sheley trial alone will not be the determining factor of if and how this goes forward.”

A recent murder trial in Kankakee was the first to be televised live, he said, adding that the Sheley trial and others in courts that allow extended media coverage will be “helpful in the final assessment of the project,” Tybor said.

During the trial in Morrison, one video and two still cameras were stationed in the back of the small courtroom. A feed was transmitted to a device known as a mult box, about the size of a large speaker, in the law library near the courtroom from which media pulled video and audio. Photographers uploaded their digital images to a website for use by all media outlets.

Cameras were not allowed during jury selection, nor could jurors be filmed or photographed.

John Maas, Whiteside County’s management services administrator, said the process “couldn’t have gone any smoother.”

“Really, everything went as planned, and everyone seemed well prepared, and that helped,” Maas said.

Some media outlets were having trouble picking up sound from some of the courtroom microphones. But a cable was hooked into a device used for jurors who have trouble hearing, Maas said, and that solved the problem.

Not everyone was happy with the expanded media presence.

Whiteside County Sheriff Kelly Wilhelmi said having cameras in the courtroom “created more issues.”

“It was one more thing to be concerned about,” Wilhelmi said. “I was more worried for the witnesses and things like that, being put on the spot.”

He was surprised that no one aired “gavel-to-gavel” coverage. Instead, TV stations ran a few minutes of highlights each day.

“To have the cameras to facilitate transparency, [then] only putting on what you want seems kind of odd to me,” Wilhelmi said.

Like Spencer, defense attorney Jeremy Karlin filed a resistance to having cameras at the trial.

However, Karlin said he didn’t really notice them, and their presence didn’t seem to affect the way witnesses testified or how the attorneys or judge acted.

Still, he thinks the presence of cameras will make it harder to find enough impartial people to fill a jury in the next Sheley trial. The court had denied Karlin’s earlier requests to move the trial outside of Whiteside County.

Sheley will be tried next year in the deaths of Brock Branson, 29, his fiancée Kilynna Blake, 20, her 2-year-old son, Dayan, and Kenneth Ulve, 25, all of whom were killed in a Rock Falls apartment on June 28, 2008.

“I’m still greatly concerned about Mr. Sheley’s ability to find a [second] jury in Whiteside County,” Karlin said. “I suspect that the next trial, as a result of this trial being televised and the refreshing of the case by all the media, it won’t be possible to pick a new jury in Whiteside County.”

Karlin declined to comment on Sheley’s opinion of his trial being televised. 

Sheley also is charged in the deaths of an Arkansas couple in Festus, Mo., and is serving life without parole in the death of Ronald Randall, 65, of Galesburg.

Extended media coverage no longer is new to Whiteside and Lee County courtrooms.

This summer, SVM’s cameras were rolling during the murder trial of Patti Mock, was was acquitted of causing the 2009 death of a Rock Falls baby, and during last month’s murder trial of Byron Adams, who was convicted of suffocating a Dixon woman in her home in 2009.

The high-profile proceedings in the Rita Crundwell case in Lee County court also will be a big test of cameras in the courtroom.

The former Dixon comptroller is charged with 60 state counts of theft; prosecutors say she stole more than $11 million in city funds since January 2010.

It’s an offshoot of a federal case in which Crundwell is charged with wire fraud. Those prosecutors say she misappropriated $53 million between 1990 and her arrest this past April. 

Cameras are not allowed in federal court, but multiple media outlets, from around the state and nationwide, have covered the case since Crundwell’s arrest on April 17. 

Lee County Circuit Judge Ron Jacobson, who favors cameras in the courtroom, said he kept an eye on the Sheley trial to see how the process went.

“The Byron Adams case convinced me that cameras in the courtrooms in Lee County is a good thing,” Jacobson said. “The Sheley matter just reinforced that.”

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