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Reporter notebook: Sheley pleads not guilty – twice

Missouri court system necessitates double plea

Christi Warren is a reporter for Sauk Valley Media. You can reach her at or 
800-798-4085, ext. 5521.
Christi Warren is a reporter for Sauk Valley Media. You can reach her at or 800-798-4085, ext. 5521.

You might have read, or heard, over the weekend about Sterling's Nicholas Sheley pleading not guilty to murder in a Missouri court on Friday.

It actually was the second time Sheley had pleaded not guilty to murdering an Arkansas couple 7 years ago in Festus, Missouri.

In Illinois, where Sheley already has been convicted of murdering six people during a weeklong killing spree in June 2008 in Sterling, Rock Falls and Galesburg, defendants need to plead only once.

Here's the thing about Jefferson County, Missouri, though.

When felony charges against him were filed in Missouri, Sheley was arraigned for the first time there. Then, because Missouri doesn't use a grand jury system as Illinois does, a defendant attends preliminary hearings in "associate court" before a case is filed in circuit court.

Preliminary hearings in Missouri serve the same function as a grand jury. They create a clearer outline of why a charge has been brought, and parse through stated facts to determine whether a case should be assigned to a circuit court judge.

Defendants can waive preliminary hearings after entering an initial plea, which is what Sheley did.

Once a case is sent on to circuit court, the defendant enters a second plea.

So, yes, Missouri has had two arraignments and two pleas of not guilty from Sheley. He will be back in Jefferson County court Oct. 6 for a pretrial hearing.

Sheley, 35, is charged with two counts of first-degree murder and two counts of armed criminal action in the deaths of Tom and Jill Estes. Prosecutors say Sheley killed the Arkansas couple in their hotel parking lot and left their bodies behind a gas station dumpster. The couple were in Missouri to attend a graduation.

In June, prosecutors said they intended to seek the death penalty for Sheley.

He has been convicted in Illinois of murdering Russell Reed, Ronald Randall, Brock Branson, Kilynna Blake, her 2-year-old son, Dayan Blake, and Kenneth Ulve, for which he is serving six life sentences. Illinois no longer has the death penalty.

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