A SIGNIFICANT hurdle in the debate over whether news media cameras should be allowed in Illinois courtrooms was cleared last week when no notable problems were reported in a murder trial in the western part of the state,
Nicholas Sheley, who gained notoriety in 2008 when he went on a shooting spree in Illinois and Missouri that left eight people dead, was convicted of first-degree murder by a Whiteside County jury in Morrison in the slaying of 93-year-old Russell Reed.
It was the highest-profile case to be argued in front of news cameras since the Illinois Supreme Court launched a pilot program in January, and could go a long way in quieting arguments by those who believe cameras should not be permitted.
Illinois is one of just 14 states where cameras are either not allowed or not used in trial courts, a practice that should end quickly.
Whiteside County State's Attorney Gary Spencer told the Quad City Times that any concerns he had about cameras possibly interfering with Sheley's right to a fair trial largely disappeared as the two-week trial unfolded.
"I didn't really have a problem with it," Spencer told the newspaper. "It is the wave of the future, and we're going to have to get used to it."
Illinois has allowed news cameras in appellate courts and the Supreme Court since 1983, but it wasn't until Chief Justice Thomas Kilbride announced the experimental program that such media access was granted in lower courts.
So far, the Supreme Court has approved cameras for courts in 23 of the state's 102 counties, and the results have been positive. That should come as no surprise, since most states have had this kind of policy in place for years without any problems.
The program comes with some restrictions. Jurors and potential jurors may not be photographed, and cameras and recording devices will not be allowed in juvenile, divorce, adoption, child custody and evidence suppression cases.
In addition, no more than two television cameras and no more than two still photographers will be allowed in a courtroom at one time. Victims of violent felonies, police informants and relocated witnesses may also request that the judge prohibit them from being photographed -- although a judge is not obligated to grant those requests.
Some opponents have voiced concerns that some attorneys or defendants will "play to the cameras," but judges have the discretion to police that kind of behavior, and have done so.
There was a concern that Sheley might be tempted to play to the cameras. The Associated Press reported that at a 2009 hearing, Sheley began screaming at a judge, calling him "stupid and ignorant" before being dragged from the room.
To guard against such outbursts at his first trial, which also resulted in a conviction, Sheley was outfitted with a stun belt, a device worn under his clothes, that allowed bailiffs to deliver a sharp electrical shock by remote control.
The judges in the 8th Judicial Circuit -- which includes Adams, Brown and Pike counties -- chose not to apply to be part of the pilot program, citing, among other things, logistical problems with some smaller courtrooms in the circuit.
However, some judges have worked with local media to identify and work out potential problems should the Supreme Court choose to make the policy permanent once results of the pilot program are reviewed.
Judging from what we have seen so far, cameras in courtrooms should be here to stay.