Lights, cameras but no action on video in Cook County courtrooms
By TIM NOVAK AND CHRIS FUSCO Staff Reporters April 7, 2014 12:43AM
Chief Cook County Judge Timothy Evans. | Richard A. Chapman~Sun-Times files
THE MSNBC EXCEPTION
Illinois Supreme Court justices won’t let cameras in Cook County courtrooms, but they made an exception so MSNBC could videotape prostitutes for the documentary “Sex Slaves: Windy City,” which aired last year.
MSNBC cameras were allowed inside the courtroom of Associate Judge Rosemary Higgins, who presides over WINGS (Women In Need Of Gender-specific Services), a “specialty problem-solving court . . . to help women charged with felony prostitution to exit the commercial sex trade,” according to Supreme Court spokesman Joseph Tybor.
Higgins sought permission for the cameras through Chief Cook County Judge Timothy C. Evans. The high court approved the request “with the consent of the state’s attorney, public defender and defendants.”
Updated: May 8, 2014 9:19AM
It’s been more than two years since Chief Cook County Judge Timothy C. Evans asked the Illinois Supreme Court to allow cameras in Cook County courtrooms.
But the Supreme Court has indefinitely deferred taking action on Evans’ application — the only one the state’s high court hasn’t approved.
While the application has languished, Cook County has had several high-profile cases that attracted widespread attention and likely would have drawn requests for courtroom cameras, among them the trials of:
◆ William Balfour, who was convicted in 2012 of killing singer Jennifer Hudson’s mother, brother and nephew.
◆ The NATO 3, three young men found guilty in February of mob action for possessing Molotov cocktails during the 2012 NATO Summit in Chicago but found not guilty of terrorism charges.
◆ Allan Kustok, who was convicted last month of killing his wife, Anita “Jeanie” Kustok, the mother of former Northwestern University quarterback Zak Kustok and sportscaster Sarah Kustok, a former DePaul University basketball player.
Evans filed Cook County’s application on Jan. 24, 2012 — two days after the Supreme Court agreed to allow video and audio recordings in courtrooms “on an experimental, circuit-by-circuit basis.”
Since then, the high court’s justices have allowed cameras in 14 judicial circuits that cover 40 of the state’s 102 counties.
Why hasn’t Cook County’s application been approved?
The Illinois Supreme Court says it still hasn’t decided how the program would work in the state’s biggest county, including whether it would be limited to a single courtroom, a particular courthouse or just criminal cases.
“It is hoped that Cook County will be approved sooner rather than later, but there is no specific timetable,” says Joseph Tybor, the Supreme Court’s spokesman.
“In Cook County, there are some folks who are not on board.”
They include State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez and Public Defender Abishi C. Cunningham Jr., a retired judge.
“We do have some reservations based specifically on the impact that cameras could have on the live testimony of our victims and witnesses, many of whom are testifying under difficult circumstances and in some cases are in fear for their safety,” says Alvarez spokeswoman Sally Daly. “However, it is clear that this initiative is moving forward, so it is our hope that these concerns could be addressed on a case-by-case basis as requests come in to allow cameras into the courtroom.”
In a letter to the Supreme Court in February, Cunningham wasn’t as diplomatic.
“I am opposed to extended media coverage of criminal cases as a matter of general principle,” Cunningham wrote. “Broadcasting criminal cases panders to the basest instincts of the media to publicize salacious and lurid stories and does nothing to enhance the understanding of how the court system works.”
When the Supreme Court announced the program in 2012, Evans said “allowing media to have cameras and recording devices in the courtrooms will give the public a better idea of what goes on in their courtrooms.”
Evans says he’s “not aware of ‘obstacles or hurdles’ ” to Cook County participating in the pilot program but that he’s been told the Supreme Court “wanted to study how the pilot fared in circuits with smaller media markets.”
DuPage, Lake and Kane counties are participating in the program.
Chief DuPage County Circuit Judge John T. Elsner says he’s approved all 20 requests he’s gotten from news outlets to have cameras at court hearings, including the triple-murder trial of Johnny Borizov last year. Ultimately, though, seven of those requests were rejected by the judges handling those cases. They have the final say in their courtrooms, and their decisions on cameras can’t be appealed.
“We’ve not had any real problems with it,” Elsner says. “Everyone has acted really professionally — the lawyers, the press.”
Evans has found himself in hot water of late with the Supreme Court, which issued a scathing report on the Cook County court system’s pretrial services and adult probation office, run till recently by Jesse Reyes, an Evans appointee.