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Pilot project proves cameras’ value; make them permanent

Thursday marked the first anniversary of the Supreme Court’s pilot project to allow news cameras and video recordings in Illinois trial courtrooms. The experiment has proved cameras’ value. Their presence in the state’s courtrooms should be made permanent.

Published: Saturday, Jan. 26, 2013 1:15 a.m. CST

Chief Justice Thomas Kilbride seems pretty pleased with the progress of the pilot project to allow news cameras and microphones in Illinois trial courtrooms.

Whiteside, Lee, Ogle and Carroll county courtrooms are among the 25 counties approved so far to participate in the first-ever Extended Media Coverage experiment.

We’re also pretty pleased, given our news department’s positive experiences utilizing still cameras and video cameras in Sauk Valley courtrooms during several major trials.

The photographs and video recordings from murder trials of Nicholas Sheley and Byron Adams, disseminated online and through print, helped the public better understand the proceedings and promoted the cause of openness and accountability.

That’s a cause fully embraced by Kilbride.

The chief justice issued a news release Thursday, the first-year anniversary of last year’s establishment by the Illinois Supreme Court of the pilot project.

“By giving the public a closer look at the workings of our court system, I remain confident that citizens will learn more about how their courts work and the critical roles that judges and the courts have in our society,” Kilbride said.

We agree with Kilbride’s assessment. We believe still and video cameras have shown the public a criminal justice system that operates in a professional, serious manner in the face of senseless, terrible crimes.

Those images and audio should instill greater public confidence in the courts. We note that we have seen no evidence of witnesses and lawyers “playing to the cameras,” which some naysayers predicted.

We also believe that courtrooms that are more open to public scrutiny afford more protection to the rights of defendants.

Kilbride used Thursday’s pilot project anniversary to announce that three more counties – DeKalb, Kendall and Lake – have been approved for immediate participation in the pilot project. That’s good news.

With 28 counties now participating, the Supreme Court has a wider swath of the state to observe as the experimental project goes forward.

News photographers who operate still and video cameras in the courtroom have done so as unobtrusively as possible. They may not be present for all phases of the trial, which jurors might notice.

Kilbride used Thursday’s anniversary to announce new instructions to be read to the jury when news cameras are present at criminal or civil trials.

The statements instruct jurors to ignore the cameras and draw no “inferences or conclusions” based on their presence or absence during parts of the trial.

Those statements will further ensure that juries maintain their impartiality during witness testimony and jury deliberations.

Kilbride stated that he was thankful for all the support by chief judges, judges, their staffs, attorneys, and all others involved in the pilot project.

“I look forward to more expansion of the project in the coming months,” he said.

So do we.

Kilbride’s 3-year term as chief justice will end in October. Since he has been the chief Supreme Court promoter of cameras in the courtroom, we encourage him to conclude the pilot project this year and make extended media coverage a permanent fixture in trial courtrooms, as it already is in 36 other states.

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