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Appellate Court arguments to be broadcast live in Peterson case

By permitting a TV camera into its august courtroom, the Third District Appellate Court will offer the public a rare glimpse at one of the area's most high-profile criminal cases.

"It's a very big deal for us," said court clerk Gist Fleshman. "There's no way we would do this for every run-of-the-mill case, but we recognize the interest. It's a big change for us."

Following a request by CHANNEL 9, media outlets will share a video feed from a single camera placed in the back of the 150-year-old Ottawa courtroom that once served as home to the Illinois Supreme Court. The camera operator cannot wear any station-identifying clothing and will not be permitted additional lighting.

CLTV and a national cable outlet indicated they planned to carry the arguments live. The Chicago Tribune also intended to stream the proceedings on its website beginning around 1 p.m.

The two sides will be arguing over prosecutors' efforts to admit 13 so-called hearsay statements at trial. The proceedings will test a controversial Illinois statute — pushed by Will County State's Attorney James Glasgow prior to Peterson's arrest for his third wife's murder — that allows hearsay evidence to be admitted if the judge finds the secondhand testimony reliable and that the bulk of evidence shows the defendant made the witness unavailable.

The Illinois Supreme Court has allowed cameras in the higher courts for more than 20 years, and for more than three years has posted video online of arguments it hears. The state's five appellate courts have been required to release audio of arguments since November 2009.

But neither the Supreme Court nor the appellate courts have had their arguments broadcast live. Officials say that's largely because the media has not shown interest in filming staid high court proceedings, though cameras were not permitted for appellate arguments in Rahm Emanuel's residency case last month in the First District in Chicago.

Legal experts say the decision to allow a live broadcast signals a deepening commitment to transparency in the Illinois judicial system. The Third District justices have been at the forefront of this effort, having held arguments at four area colleges last year. Though some appellate proceedings had been held at law schools in the past, the traveling hearings were believed to be the first opened to the general student population and community at large.

"We're seeing a step-by-step trend toward more transparency," said Harold Krent, dean of Chicago-Kent College of Law.

Cameras are still not allowed at the trial-court level in Illinois.

Krent does not believe the television coverage will affect public opinion, in part because the attorneys will have to tailor their arguments to judges who are not swayed by grandstanding. The proceedings are unlikely to have the flair or impassioned rhetoric of a jury trial, he said.

"It's going to be more boring to watch (than a trial)," Krent said. "But, at the same time, the attorneys might feel pressure not to pose arguments in the same fashion that they normally do."

Peterson, who has a history of mugging for cameras, will not attend the hearing; defendants typically do not in such appeals. He remains in Will County Jail in lieu of $20 million bail.

Peterson, 57, is charged with killing his third wife, Kathleen Savio, who was found dead in a dry bathtub in 2004. Officials initially ruled the death an accidental drowning, but authorities reopened the case after his fourth wife, Stacy Peterson, vanished in October 2007. He remains a suspect in her disappearance but has not been charged.

The former Bolingbrook police sergeant's much-anticipated murder trial was delayed in July after Glasgow announced he would appeal a judge's ruling barring several hearsay statements that Glasgow says would help convict Peterson of Savio's death and let her voice speak from the grave.

The judge has not released the ruling, so the appellate arguments most certainly will lead to the first public confirmation of its contents.

Though the Tribune previously reported that Will County Judge Stephen White found that Peterson likely killed Savio and likely caused Stacy's disappearance, no one connected to the case has verified that finding on the record. Both sides have sidestepped the issue at the trial court level and occasionally argued motions connected to the ruling behind closed doors.

"The appellate judges will be sensitive to the issue and the fact (the case has been sealed), but only to a point," said DePaul University law professor Leonard Cavise. "They won't hesitate to ask questions about it, and attorneys will have to answer."

Prosecutors declined comment until after the proceedings. Assistant State's Attorney Colleen Griffin will handle Will County's arguments.

Defense attorney Steve Greenberg, who will argue against the appeal, said Peterson's team probably would have opposed the cameras if asked for an opinion. But Greenberg said he will not alter his presentation because of the cameras.

"You have to pretend they're not there, and that's all you can do," he said. "I'm going to argue what I have to argue."


Chicago Tribune copy:

As attorneys prepare to argue a pioneering hearsay law, Drew Peterson's murder case will blaze another trail Wednesday when an Illinois appellate court allows oral arguments to be broadcast live for the first time in state history.

Bob.Roberts's picture

Bravo to WGN-TV/CLTV/Tribune for getting this aired live and on the Web. It's "one small step/giant leap" that should have occurred years ago. One of the stumbling blocks newsrooms encounter when trying to get permission to record or air appellate and Illinois Supreme Court arguments is the notice involved. You can't just walk in and record these. The court wants a week's notice and logistics must be worked out in most venues. Media outlets should do more of this. Our "print" colleagues are just as interested now in video for their Web sites as broadcasters. But to do so successfully means doing something many newsrooms are not good at doing -- planning ahead.

Bob Roberts
INBA Freedom of Information Chair
1996-97 Past President