(MCT) — MORRISON, Ill. — The alleged murderer of eight people in a two-state killing spree gained another measure of notoriety Monday when his trial in one of the slayings became the first prominent case covered by cameras in Illinois courts.
Three photographers — two shooting still images; the third taking video — were allowed to monitor opening statements and testimony in the trial of Nicholas Sheley, 33, of Sterling, in the Whiteside County courthouse.
A construction worker and ex-convict with a record of criminal violence and a history of drug abuse, Sheley is charged with the bludgeoning death of Russell Reed, 93, on June 23, 2008, in Reed’s farmhouse in Sterling.
Reed’s death is believed to have been the first of the eight slayings in 2008. Those included four people — a 2-year-old boy among them — in an apartment in Rock Falls; a 65-year-old Galesburg man and an Arkansas couple found dead behind a gas station in Festus, Mo.
The torment and fear ended July 1, when Sheley entered a bar in Granite City, Ill., where he was apprehended while smoking a cigarette outside the front door.
Three and a half years later, the Illinois Supreme Court chose the four-county 14th Judicial Circuit in western Illinois as the first circuit to allow cameras, primarily because it borders Iowa, where cameras have been in courtrooms since 1979. Illinois had been one of 14 states prohibiting the media from recording court proceedings.
The courtroom, which has a capacity of about 50, looked somewhat as if Judge F. Michael Meersman had called a news conference. A video camera on a tripod was posted at the rear center of the courtroom.
Seated next to videographer Travis Kershaw, from WQAD-TV in Moline, were two still photographers, Alex Paschal from Sauk Valley Media, and Chicago Tribune photographer Michael Tercha.
Paschal served as a pool staffer, providing images to all media outlets, while Tercha shot exclusively for his news outlet.
The 14th Circuit media coordinator, Mike Ortiz, chief photographer for KWQC-TV in the Quad Cities, is rotating photographers from all media outlets who request courtroom access.
Space on Monday was tight.
“You might get really snuggly with my backside,” Kershaw told the other photographers.
Authorities blocked the three from taking images of the jury and of an undercover Illinois State Police investigator who testified. During her testimony, Kershaw trained his camera on Sheley and on evidence photographs.
Stationed in the courthouse law library, Ortiz handled the feed through a device about the size of a dormitory refrigerator that allowed other outlets to pull images.
Ortiz also sent feeds to stations without representatives at the courthouse, and that proved to be a challenge. Internet access was slow, he said.
Journalists from six media outlets were covering the case. Among them were Chris Minor, who has covered courts for 27 years as a reporter for WQAD, the ABC affiliate, and Kate Pabich, a photojournalist with WHBF-TV, a CBS affiliate in Rock Island.
Pabich said she was “terrified because we’re a trial county so we could mess it up for the rest of Illinois.”
But she also said cameras in the courtroom allowed viewers to see behind what previously had been doors closed to the public.
Cameras are long overdue in Illinois courts, Minor said. “It’s like Christmas for journalists,” she said. “It’s a gift.”
Stations used to hire courtroom sketch artists, which became expensive.
“It was almost like we were having to use stick figures in the TV business to cover courts,” Minor said.
Although Sheley’s trial is the first prominent Illinois proceeding for courtroom cameras, photographers and videographers have been working in the 14th Circuit since February. A Kankakee County murder trial that began Oct. 23 is believed to be the first case in the state where cameras provided live coverage of a trial.
Whiteside County State’s Attorney Gary Spencer noted in opening statements that DNA lifted from a cigarette in Reed’s farmhouse belonged to Sheley, as did DNA from a water bottle found in Reed’s car.
Spencer also quoted from a letter Sheley wrote to the attorney of his brother; his brother was charged and acquitted with concealing Reed’s death.
“I fully intend on pleading guilty to my charges because I know exactly what has taken place,” Spencer said Nicholas Sheley wrote, “and because of the fact that I do indeed know what I have done.”
Sheley’s attorney, Jeremy Karlin, told the jury that prosecutors were “going to pile on” evidence that may be irrelevant, immaterial and untrustworthy to see if any of it sticks.
Karlin said some evidence from so-called scientists actually was collected by lab technicians and that the letter was not a confession.
He cautioned jurors to hold off making a decision on Sheley’s guilt or innocence until all the evidence has been considered.
Sheley was convicted last year in the murder of Ronald Randall of Galesburg — the first conviction in his alleged rampage.
He is facing additional charges in Whiteside County for the killings of the four people in the Rock Falls apartment.