Lake County State's Attorney Candidates Say Cameras Bring Transparency to Courtroom
Reservations remain on what impact it will have on witnesses, victims.
Lake County State’s Attorney candidate Chris Kennedy remembers the intrusion, the lack of privacy.
Twelve years ago, Kennedy’s cousin was abducted and murdered in Tennessee.
“She was missing for a while, and in the media while they tried to find her,” said Kennedy, one of three Democratic candidates who resides in Libertyville and practices law in Lake Forest. “It was very difficult for the family to deal with. They were not afforded the privacy to grieve.”
That experience leaves Kennedy with mixed feelings over the recent Illinois Supreme Court ruling that will allow cameras into the state’s circuit courts for the first time. The pilot program allows the media to use both still and video cameras to record civil and criminal proceedings, but it will be up to the discretion of the presiding circuit court judge whether to participate.
Like all of his opponents in the race for Lake County state’s attorney, who are vying to succeed retiring Lake County State’s Attorney Mike Waller in the March 20 primary, Kennedy supports the presence of cameras in the courtroom.
“It could be a good development in educating the public,” he said.
Impact on Victims, Witnesses
However, Kennedy is torn by what impact those same cameras could have on witnesses and victims.
“My fear is that it will cause witnesses to be more reluctant and not come forward,” Kennedy said. “No one wants public tragedy played out in public.”
The ruling does provide protections when the identities of witnesses and victims would be considered sensitive, such as sexual abuse cases. Also, cameras would not be allowed in certain types of cases, including juvenile, adoption or child custody cases.
Michael Nerheim, one of three Republican candidates, agrees victim and witness rights need to be protected, and that cameras could inhibit cooperation from potential witnesses. However, the Gurnee resident and Waukegan attorney supports the ruling because it provides transparency to courtroom proceedings.
“It’s been a long time coming,” Nerheim said of the ruling. “The advances in technology have made this something that is not as cumbersome as it was 10 years ago.”
Lake Bluff resident Louise Hayes, an assistant Lake County state’s attorney running for the Republican nomination, said the presence of cameras will help support the cornerstones of the justice system.
“I fully support cameras being allowed in our courtrooms with the exception of juvenile cases,” Hayes said. “Our justice system should always be fair and transparent, and I feel that cameras will help uphold those high standards."
Cameras Keep Attorneys Focused
Mundelein attorney Karen Williams, a Democratic candidate, likes the idea of giving the public a chance to view courtroom proceedings.
But it’s possible some attorneys may take advantage of the camera on them.
“You have to take the bad with the good,” she said. “Some attorneys may put on a show for the cameras. Whatever tomfoolery goes on will die out quickly.”
She said cameras will make attorneys be on their game.
“They will come to court better prepared because they know they are being recorded by a camera,” she said. “It can potentially be a little daunting at first, but it depends on where your focus is at.”
Bryan Winter, a Republican candidate, has tried a mock case in front of cameras and said it did not affect him.
“You’re focused on your job,” said Winter, a Waukegan lawyer and Lake Barrington resident. “The key is where they place the cameras so they are not intrusive. It can be accomplished. I don’t see a problem.”
Democratic candidate Reginald Mathews, a Lake County assistant state’s attorney, agrees the cameras will affect only a small percentage of lawyers.
“It’s human nature to be affected by them,” said Mathews, a North Chicago native and Lindenhurst resident. “Some may be more theatrical, but others will ignore them and keep their focus on their case. You don’t try your case in the media.”