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Will allowing cameras in court improve
 justice or pervert it?
By Matt Hanley, Aurora Beacon News
Last Modified: Mar 19, 2012 10:27AM
​Scenario 1: The former governor of Illinois — pick one — is on trial for public corruption. The governor’s trial will become a significant part of the state’s history and provide insight into how political deals damage democratic ideals.

Shouldn’t the public be allowed to see the trial in raw form? Shouldn’t we have the right to see whether justice was done on our behalf?

Scenario 2: At 5:40 a.m. April 14, 2007, a woman in a town from Australia happens to look out the window of an Aurora Super 8 Motel and sees Enrique Torres shoot Edgar Hill in the parking lot of the motel, then flee. The woman tells police what she saw. Four years later, her testimony is key to getting a murder conviction against Torres.

Would the woman have stepped forward if she knew that she might have been on TV that night?

These two real scenarios illustrate the practical concerns about the state Supreme Court’s recent decision to allow cameras in Illinois courtrooms. Most people believe in both transparency and justice, but those values can sometimes come into conflict when a camera is pointed at the witness stand.

Since the Supreme Court’s announcement in January, judges and attorneys in Kane, Kendall and DuPage counties have been trying to determine whether they are ready for their close-up.

“I don’t know that any judges are terribly enthusiastic about it,” said Judge John Kinsella, who is heading up DuPage County’s committee considering the issue of cameras in the courts. “While it adds to the public’s desire for information, it could take away from the administration of justice.”

New rules

For years, signs at the front of Illinois courthouses have warned residents that cameras are prohibited. Every day, dozens of people are sent back to their car to leave their camera phone in the glove compartment.

But in January, Illinois Supreme Court Justice Thomas Kilbride announced Illinois would join 36 other states by allowing cameras inside the courtroom.

Currently, criminal and civil county courtrooms are open to the public; but video cameras, still cameras and recording devices are not allowed in. (Juvenile court is not open to the public, but reporters are allowed in.) Under the new rules, any objections to filming during the testimony of sex abuse victims, police informants, undercover agents and relocated witnesses would be granted. Cameras would be barred during juvenile, divorce, adoption, child custody, evidence suppression and trade secret cases.

Witnesses can request not to be photographed, but the request will not automatically be granted. Coverage of jury selection is not allowed.

Within days of the Supreme Court announcement, Cook County said it would apply to enter the program. Kankakee and Madison counties also applied for the camera program. In February, an Associated Press reporter at a hearing for accused murderer Nicholas Sheley used a camera phone to take the first pictures inside an Illinois courtroom.

Local counties have moved more cautiously.

DuPage, Kane, Kendall

The day the news broke about cameras in the courtroom, the chief judges in both the 18th Judicial Circuit (DuPage County) and 16th Judicial Circuit (Kane, Kendall and DeKalb counties) declined comment. Since then, they have moved methodically, setting up committees to examine the process. Kinsella leads DuPage’s committee, while Kendall County Judge Tim McCann heads up the 16th Circuit panel.

Both committees met earlier this month and tried to sort through a myriad of issues surrounding the new program. For the most part, local judges and attorneys seemed resigned to the fact that cameras are coming. The lack of enthusiasm doesn’t mean they oppose cameras but, rather, have a discomfort with the judicial process becoming reality TV.

“When people see the cameras in the courtroom, they act differently, and it’ll be interesting to show how it plays out,” said Kendall County State’s Attorney Eric Weis.

The biggest issue for judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys and police officers contacted for this story was the fear that attorneys, judges or witnesses might play to the camera and interfere with a defendant’s right to a fair trial. There’s also concern that cameras could complicate the pre-trial work, potentially bringing a third party — a media outlet fighting for access — into the legal proceedings.

“Anything that adds a new wrinkle to the case — more hearings, more arguments — we’re not out to make our life more complicated,” Kinsella said.

Even simple questions need to be ironed out. Can a blog or company newsletter apply for press credentials, or only the traditional press? There are physical challenges, too. Illinois courtrooms were not built to accommodate cameras, so they would have to be retrofitted to create an unobtrusive and accommodating place.

The space challenges are surmountable, but ethical challenges are still causing plenty of unease.

Dispelling myths

When discussing cameras, one name comes up again and again: O.J. The live coverage of the murder trial for former football star O.J. Simpson became a television event watched by millions. The participants became media stars as the public dissected the trial. For people in the legal field, it felt ugly.

“What you don’t want is give the right to access this information and knowledge and have it turn into entertainment,” Kinsella said.

But some argue letting people into the courtroom can be educational. Defense attorney Kathleen Colton wishes the public could have seen the testimony in the case against Sandra Vasquez of Aurora. Vasquez was charged with reckless homicide for being the driver in a crash that killed five Oswego teenagers. The trial in Kendall County generated plenty of local interest and became a launching point for larger community discussions about teen drinking, curfews and public transportation.

However, Colton feels those debates started to separate the case’s facts and Vasquez became a monster. Being able to see her tearful testimony might have changed that perception.

“I think it would have been educational for the public (to see the trial),” she said. “It is the defendant’s right to have an open courtroom.”

Concerns about witness intimidation are probably overstated, Aurora Police Chief Greg Thomas said. While witnesses might be harassed in the movies, it’s extremely rare in real life, Thomas said.

“I don’t think it’s going to be an issue,” Thomas said. “I have good faith in people that when they get involved in something, they will step forward.”

Helping people understand the difference between TV and real life could puncture some of the myths about the courtroom, several attorneys argued. Other attorneys worry that clips from trials could be overly simplified or shown out of context.

Of course, print reporters have been in Illinois courtrooms for years, summarizing court proceedings. And residents have always been able to sit in a courtroom and draw whatever conclusions they want.

In the meantime, the local camera-in-the-courtroom committees have eased into the issue. McCann said at the first 16th Circuit meeting, one of the first decisions was that all future meetings should be open.

“If the whole issue is transparency, than we need some transparency,” he said.

That openness will be on display when the 16th Judicial Circuit holds a public meeting at 2 p.m. May 2 to gather comment from the public and members of the media.