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Trial reporting takes on new dimensions

Published: Saturday, May 24, 2014 1:15 a.m. CDT

Thanks to the Illinois Supreme Court, readers of this newspaper (and viewers of its website) got a close look inside two murder trials this week.

Although our readers have been served well by some outstanding trial reporting – Kathleen Schultz in Lee County, and Christi Warren from Rock Island County – the extended coverage through visual images has allowed readers some (relatively) unfiltered access to the inside of those courtrooms.

Two years ago, we were among the first newspapers in Illinois to take advantage of the court’s pilot project to introduce cameras (and other digital tools) into criminal trial proceedings. Such so-called “extended coverage” is now fairly routine for us during major criminal cases.

In addition to the still photos that we publish in print and online, our website offers video from key courtroom scenes, and Christi has been allowed to “live tweet” court action for readers who are plugged in to Twitter.

While this is still an experimental program, the additional access the public has been given is an unqualified success.

Now, what were those objections to cameras in the courtroom?

DOES ANYONE doubt that Nick Sheley’s trial in Rock Island County will result in convictions?

Did anyone foresee the Matthew Welling verdict in Lee County this week being anything other than guilty?

Given the overwhelming nature of the evidence, no one could be surprised by the outcome of those jury trials.

Some people, however, might be puzzled as to what the defendants thought they would accomplish by going to trial – other than to convince the public beyond any doubt about their guilt.

When defense attorneys call no witnesses to rebut prosecution testimony, guilty verdicts are almost inevitable.

But all those defense questions involving intent and knowing conduct – or even pre-trial publicity – are really issues for appellate judges who review the legal process for flaws, regardless of the preponderance of evidence.

In these cases, we even know with some certainty what the sentences will be.

Still, it’s important that the system be allowed to work.

And it has.

IN THE EXCELLENT movie “Presumed Innocent,” based on a novel by Scott Turow, Harrison Ford plays a prosecutor on trial for the murder of his lover.

He argues with his lawyer about taking the witness stand, to tell the jury he didn’t do it. His lawyer advises against it.

Ford’s character, Rusty Sabich, explains that as a prosecutor, he – as well as a jury – always knows that a defendant is guilty when he doesn’t testify.

So much for the presumption of innocence of a defendant who exercises his Fifth Amendment right.

Now in his third murder trial, Sheley has yet to be his own witness.

Welling, likewise, chose not to plead his case in open court.

The problem, always, is that the prosecution also gets to question a defendant who takes the stand.

But the prosecutor is not allowed to argue to jurors that their deliberations should consider the defendant’s refusal to testify.

Jurors, of course, have trouble ignoring that crucial piece of evidence.

But, in theory, they try.

INFAMY FOLLOWED Nick Sheley to nearby Rock Island County.

It took a full week to assemble a jury of 12 people and four alternates to hear the evidence and render a verdict. Your average felony case usually seats a jury on the first day.

But eight murder victims, two convictions, and two prison sentences of life without possibility of parole are the kinds of things that a defendant finds hard to shake from the public’s mind.

Still, 16 people in Rock Island County swore they could set aside what they thought they knew about the case and return a verdict based solely on the evidence they see and hear in court.

Judge Jeffrey O’Connor allowed one murder trial for Sheley to be conducted in Whiteside County – over the objection of the defense – before he moved the quadruple homicide case to his home base in Rock Island.

How far away would the trial have to be moved to find people who hadn’t heard of Sheley and his crimes?

A long, long way.

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