When it comes to news media cameras in McHenry County courtrooms, the bottom line is simple: Don’t hold your breath.
Although extended media coverage is moving into the collar counties and several others, McHenry County court officials say they are in a wait-and-see mode. Wait for potential problems to arise in other circuits and see how they address them.
“The biggest issue is that it’s a change in philosophy,” McHenry County’s 22nd Circuit Court Administrator Dan Wallis said. “For over 100 years, cameras weren’t allowed in courtrooms and very suddenly there was an announcement from the Chief Justice [Thomas Kilbride] allowing them.
“It’s new and it’s different,” Wallis said.
The Illinois Supreme Court created a pilot program in January 2012, allowing still photography and video cameras, although on a limited basis. Illinois has allowed news cameras in the Supreme Court and appellate courts since 1983, but was one of 14 states where cameras in trial courtrooms were not allowed or were restricted so much that they were hardly used.
There are apprehensions, Wallis said, that cameras would affect the decorum of a courtroom; concerns for safety of judges, attorneys and witnesses; legal questions that need to be answered; and a possible “chilling effect” a camera’s lens would have on witnesses.
Wallis said the 22nd Circuit continues to evaluate cameras and listen to feedback from other circuits, but he wouldn’t put a timetable on when – or if – cameras would someday capture the inside of McHenry County courtrooms.
But perhaps successes in neighboring counties could push efforts along here.
DuPage County was one of the first major judicial circuits to allow cameras. There, the complaints have been but a few. Tony Capriolo, media coordinator for DuPage and Kane counties, says courtroom stakeholders hardly notice the cameras.
“As it’s implemented … we’re finding it’s not nearly the problem everyone thought it would be,” Capriolo said. “I think what most people are finding is that once you get started, everyone does their job.”
Kane County’s 16th Circuit only recently applied for and was approved by the Supreme Court to allow media cameras. But Kane has had too few cases that had camera coverage to get a full grasp of any potential problems.
Kane County State’s Attorney Joseph McMahon said he had his reservations, but didn’t stand in the way.
“What I like about this rule is that the Supreme Court has adopted and allowed cameras to come into the courtroom to give members of the public much greater access to what goes on in their courtroom on a daily basis,” he said.
“That’s who I represent. We represent [the public] in the system. It helps them understand the work of their judicial system.”
But McMahon was quick to add, “That doesn’t mean I don’t have concerns.”
Some local attorneys are coming on board, too. Criminal defense attorney Robert Deters, with McHenry County-based Botto Gilbert Gehris Lancaster law firm, believes cameras in all courtrooms are inevitable.
“I, for one, don’t mind the transparency they bring to the judicial system,” he said.
“I understand that public perception of a criminal defendant can be easily swayed, but the courtroom is a public place – anybody can go in and look at anything going on. A picture or a camera does no less than what your two eyes can do.”
Still, not everyone is convinced. DeKalb and Kane County criminal defense attorney J. Brick Van Der Snick unsuccessfully challenged extended media coverage leading up to a trial of Northern Illinois University college students charged in the hazing death of a fraternity brother.
Van Der Snick represents one of the students, and he didn’t want his client’s case to be the first major test of DeKalb County’s extended media coverage.
The attorney argued that the added media coverage would make it nearly impossible to select an impartial jury.
“I think that it affects the defendant, it affects the case, and I’m opposed to it,” Van Der Snick said. “How are we to get a jury pool of 12 fair and impartial jurors? That’s why I’m opposed to it.”
In courtrooms where media cameras are allowed, trial judges ultimately have the final say about what can and cannot be filmed. Judges also can end photographic or electronic media coverage at any time if they find that the rules have been violated.
All witnesses may object before the court proceeding and file written paperwork, but the judge ultimately will rule on the issue. In cases where sexual abuse is alleged, there will be no recording or photos of the victim’s testimony unless the victim consents.
The Supreme Court also limited what can and cannot be filmed. Jurors are off limits, as are juvenile, divorce, adoption, child custody, evidence suppression or trade secret cases.
Individual judicial circuits also can tailor specific rules to themselves.
“When the time come for this to be mandated … when that time comes, McHenry County could have those rules foisted upon them. I would personally want to be part of that process,” Capriolo said.