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The People vs. Sheley: Pictures of justice

Published: Saturday, Nov. 10, 2012 1:15 a.m. CDT • Updated: Tuesday, Nov. 13, 2012 2:18 p.m. CDT

More than 4 years passed between June 23, 2008, the date that 93-year-old Russell Reed of rural Sterling was brutally beaten to death, and Tuesday’s conviction of his murderer, 33-year-old Nicholas T. Sheley of Sterling.

Though justice has been done for Reed’s family, the process took too long.

To emphasize the passage of time, consider that when the crime was committed, a certain U.S. senator from Illinois had yet to be formally nominated by the Democratic Party for president. On the day of the guilty verdict, that same former senator won re-election to his second term as president.

The killing spree of late June 2008 sent eight victims to their graves. Sheley was convicted last year in Knox County of killing Ronald Randall, 65, of Galesburg.

Two convictions down, six to go: four victims who were killed in a Rock Falls apartment, and an Arkansas couple killed in the parking lot of a Missouri motel.

Delays in conducting trials may lessen the public’s confidence in the criminal justice system.

Greater transparency in the conduct of those trials, however, has the opposite effect.

That is our conclusion after cameras and microphones were allowed in Sheley’s Whiteside County trial. The judge granted extended media coverage so that Sauk Valley Media and other news organizations could use modern newsgathering technology.

As a result, the public had much greater access to what happened inside the courtroom.

Video and audio recordings were made of key moments in the trial – opening and closing arguments by attorneys and certain witnesses’ testimony – and posted on saukvalley.com.

Photos of the judge, prosecuting and defense attorneys, and certain witnesses helped illustrate trial stories in print and online.

Plus, Sauk Valley Media’s reporter blogged and sent Tweet messages during the trial itself, so that people could stay current with the testimony as it happened.

The bottom line: People did not have to take time off from work, drive to Morrison, and find a seat in the courtroom to know what was going on in a trial of major significance for the Sauk Valley.

Fears of some naysayers that lawyers, witnesses or the defendant would play to the cameras proved unjustified.

Extended media coverage remains a pilot project of the Illinois Supreme Court. We believe it has proved its value and should become a permanent fixture in Illinois courtrooms.

Others in the criminal justice system see the importance of cameras in the courtroom.

Lee County Circuit Judge Ron Jacobson said he believes extended media coverage “is a good thing,” and commented that the Sheley trial reinforced that belief.

Whiteside County State’s Attorney Gary Spencer filed a resistance to having cameras in the courtroom for the Sheley trial, but he may have changed 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. You folks all did a great job,” Spencer said after the trial.

The pictures of justice from the Sheley trial bring home the meticulous and professional nature of the judicial system, boost public confidence in that system, and in a way, help to mitigate the long delay between crime and conviction.

And they plainly illustrated how the evidence stacked up to an inevitable verdict against a cold, calculating killer.

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