Friday, September 19, 2008

Judge Orders Mental Fitness Hearing for Sheley



Today was another hearing at the Knox County Courthouse for Nicholas Sheley, 29, a Sterling, Illinois man accused of a two-state killing spree that left eight dead.

Sheley faces a 17 count indictment in Knox County for kidnapping, killing, and robbing 65 year old Ronald Randall of Galesburg, and stealing Randall's 2007 Chevy pickup. If convicted Sheley will face the death penalty.

I got to the courthouse early to be sure I could get a seat in the courtroom. The only spectators in the courtroom are three women sitting in the front row. I sit right behind them in the second row. (same seat I had last hearing). We spoke a bit before the hearing and I learned they are the victim's, Ronald Randall, sisters. This was an exceptionally brutal crime perpetrated against their brother; however, they seemed very composed and I could sense their resolve in seeing that justice is served.

When I told them I was blogging about the case, I think they were a little surprised that there are people from all over that are following this case. They seemed interested and got my name and blog address. I also directed them to a few other blogs where I had seen coverage. A few moments later Ronald's daughter came in with a friend, followed by Shirley Pringle, a victims rights advocate. I'm really glad to see this family has a strong support system. I asked if they were being kept up to date by the prosecution and they said yes, they are.

I really don't want to impose on the family so I try to just sit and watch who is coming in the courtroom. It looks like the hearing won't start early this time, it's 1:15 before most people start coming in and sitting. Two men in suits come in. I don't recognize them but one of them stops to say hello to Ronald's family and the other sat somewhere behind me. After the first man moved on, one of the sisters told me he was Whiteside County State's Attorney, Gary Spencer.

I had read in the local paper that Spencer was at the September 11 hearing as well ( I missed that hearing). Evidently, as the prosecutor in Sheley's regular stomping grounds, he and Sheley are quite familiar with each other. It was reported in the Galesburg Register-Mail that at the end of the hearing, Spencer caught Sheley’s eye on his way out of the courtroom. “Mr. Spencer, it’s a pleasure to see you,” Sheley said.“I wish I could say the same,” Spencer replied. LOL, yep I'd say they have a history.

After Sheley's case is resolved in Knox County, Spencer will have the next crack at prosecuting Sheley. In Whiteside County, Sheley faces an indictment with 5 counts of first-degree murder in the death of a 93 year old man from Sterling and another 15 counts of first-degree murder in the deaths of 4 people found bludgeoned to death in a Rock Falls apartment, including a 2 year old boy. I haven't heard how these cases will be handled, whether 1 trial or 2 since there were 2 separate incidents. The 15 count indictment includes aggravating factors in three of the counts that will make Sheley eligible for the death penalty in Whiteside County too. The state has 120 days from September 18 to decide if they will seek the death penalty.

Over the next few minutes the courtroom fills up and Sheley is brought in. As usual he is fully shackled and sporting that jailhouse orange. He's clutching an expansion folder in his arms as the deputies lead him to a seat at the defense table. He looks very tired today. IMO, if indeed he is guilty of the brutal crimes he is accused of, he doesn't deserve a good nights sleep ever again.

Ninth Circuit Judge James Stewart enters the courtroom and the hearing begins. This hearing was scheduled to hear Nicholas Sheley's concern about the effectiveness of his counsel. Stewart asks Sheley if he has made a decision about his representation. Sheley replied," At this time I would like to represent myself or have other counsel appointed." Stewart told Sheley that is two options and he has to decide one way or the other. Sheley said," At this time I will defend myself."

Defense co-counsel Jeremy Karlin tells the court they have doubt of Sheley's fitness to stand trial, his competency to knowingly wave his right to counsel and represent himself. Judge Stewart says Sheley must undergo a fitness hearing to determine whether or not he is fit to stand trial and can knowingly, voluntarily and intelligently wave his right to counsel and represent himself.

The judge then asks the prosecution for a response and Knox County State's Attorney John Pepmeyer told him, "The prosecution has no position on the motion." Stewart responds, "thanks" in a manner that made for a rare light moment in the courtroom.

Sheley speaks up again and says he has the written motion the court had requested at the last hearing describing how he wants to proceed. Sheley also said he made copies for the attorneys.

Karlin objects to the court accepting the motions before Sheley's fitness is determined. Karlin says, '' We have a bonafide concern about his fitness to stand trial and his competency to represent himself. Either we are his attorneys, or we're not''.

Public Defender James Harrell requests that Sheley's motion be sealed until fitness is determined. Stewart grants that request and then addresses Sheley, he says that concern has been raised about his competency and that the defense attorneys have an obligation to the state as well as the defendant. The Illinois Supreme Court has guidelines and the work being done by the attorneys will be subject to review. Stewart also told Sheley if he is found to be fit to stand trial, he will ask the Chief Judge to appoint a different judge to decide the competency of the defense.

Pepmeyer requests they tie up some loose ends. He says on September 12, the people filed their answer to discovery. They were in compliance with the discovery order and everything was included except the DNA testing.

Harrell says the defense hasn't had the opportunity to go through all of the discovery volumes.
The judge asks the defense about the DNA expert they plan to hire and Karlin said that they do have an order that identifies their expert. Someone on the prosecution side commented that the expert the defense mentioned before wasn't available soon enough.

Things got a little confusing here because Sheley tried to interrupt and address the court. Judge Stewart told him that he would not be allowed to address the court until after a fitness hearing.
After being silenced by the judge Sheley became visibly upset, his face turned red and he scooted his chair around so that his back was to the judge and his attorneys. The sound of Sheley trying to scoot his wood chair on the floor while fully shackled and rustling the papers he held brought all attention to him. He closed his eyes for a bit and eventually turned himself back around. For the remainder of the hearing he took some notes and rustled papers occasionally but otherwise stayed quiet.

Pepmeyer tells the court he would like to have a firm date for the DNA testing so that the trial can go ahead. Harrell responds it's a moot point because fitness needs to be determined first.
Pepmeyer shoots back that the DNA testing should occur regardless of fitness.

Assistant Attorney General Michael Atterberry enters a motion to attribute the delay to the defense. The defense moves that the count of the delay shouldn't start until September 3.

My notes show the issue of protocal for appointing a fitness expert was raised. I didn't note who brought it up but it is agreed there are three issues to be determined:
1. fitness for trial
2.competency of counsel
3. competency to represent himself.

Pepmeyer moves to vacate the hearing scheduled for September 24. The next hearing will be September 26 at 10 a.m.. The hearing was over.
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