The Illinois Supreme Court announced Tuesday it has approved a pilot program to allow news cameras in trial courtrooms for the first time.
The experimental policy, effective immediately, authorizes coverage in circuit courts on a court-by-court basis. Circuit courts must apply for approval from the Illinois Supreme Court to take part in the program. Once the court is approved, media must request authorization for eligible cases.
Count Cook County Circuit Judge Timothy Evans is among those hoping to the first to apply for the pilot program.
"I have no doubt that it could be a big plus," Evans said. "I don’t think the public members know as much about the court system, as I think this new system will provide them with answers."
It has been a long time coming. In the mid-1930s, cameras were allowed in courtrooms, but the flashbulb-popping spectacle of the Lindbergh kidnapping case in New Jersey put an end to that. Court cameras were banned for some four decades across the United States.
Slowly that began to change. Illinois is now one of only 14 states where cameras are not allowed in some fashion.
"This is just the next step," said an enthusiastic Illinois Supreme Court Justice Mary Jane Theis. She noted that the last time the high court visited the issue in the eighties, cameras were rejected by a 4 to 3 vote. But times have changed.
"Those fears that we’ve had in the past just don’t seem to be playing out," Theis said, suggesting the real advantage of the program will be giving the public a first-person example, that courtroom dramas are not necessarily what they see on television.
"People have a sense of how courtrooms work," she said. "But unless you’ve actually been there, and up until now you had to actually be there, most people don’t really understand the process."
To be certain, there have been high-profile, judicial train wrecks involving cameras. Most courtroom observers would present the O.J. Simpson case as exhibit A.
"That was a long time ago," Justice Theis said. "The trial judge did not manage that case well."
She emphasized that there will be tight rules. No cameras in any cases involving juveniles, divorces, adoption, child custody, evidence suppression or trade secrets. Most cases involving sexual abuse will not have cameras unless a testifying victim consents. Trial judges will have the final say in all cases.
"O.J. was an aberration," said former Cook County Judge Sam Amirante, who took part in what most observers believe was Cook County’s highest profile proceeding, the trial of serial killer John Wayne Gacy. "We’re in an electronic age. They do it in other states. It hasn’t seemed to affect outcomes or verdicts."
Defense lawyer Sam Adam, Jr. agrees. Adam’s bombastic courtroom style was well known to those who watched the first Rod Blagojevich trial in court. Under this sytem, viewers would see it at home.
"If you don’t have anything to hide, why can’t people watch?” Adam said. "People are aquitted and convicted whether or not the cameras are there. I think what it is, people are afraid of change."
Chicagoland’s next "trial of the century" will be the proceedings against accused wife-killer Drew Peterson. His attorney, Steve Greenberg, says he hopes the public will get a chance to watch.
"We want them to see this isn’t a murder, so that when Drew Peterson is aquitted, they understand," he said.
The court points out this isn't Illinois' first foray into uncharted territory. The Illinois Supreme Court was among the first to use Twitter to communicate official word of its orders and announcements.