Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Nicholas Sheley found fit to stand trial;case enters unchartered ground regarding fitness to represent himself.

UPDATE 12/27/2008 - I have added a link , in paragraph 11, to an interview with Sheley's ex-wife.

Today, Monday, December 22, I attended another hearing in the case of IL v. Nicholas T. Sheley. Sheley is a 29 year old Sterling, IL man accused of a two-state killing spree that left 8 people dead, in late June, 2008. Knox County is the first to prosecute Sheley. He is charged with bludgeoning to death a 65 year old Galesburg, IL man, Ronald Randall, and robbing him before he dumped his body and stole his pickup truck. If convicted, Sheley will face the death penalty.

When I pull up to the courthouse at about 1 p.m. I’m surprised to get a parking spot right in front….does it seem petty to note this?….not when it’s sub-zero temperatures and icy out , those spots become valuable! LOL ! On my way to the entrance, I take a peak at the back side of the courthouse where they usually bring in the prisoners, it doesn’t look like Sheley has been brought over from the jail yet, he is usually escorted by a caravan. The hearing is supposed to start at 1:30 p.m..

As I enter the courtroom I see there are more people here than usual. Ronald Randall’s family is here, sitting in the first two rows on the prosecution side. There are a few more of their family here today, that’s really good to see. Strength in numbers. I’m sure it’s hard for many people to attend court on a regular basis because of work. Shirley Pringle, a victims rights advocate for Knox County joins them. She does a great job and provides a lot of support. ( She rescued me today, I'll get to that later)

There are people seated on the defense side that I haven’t seen before, a young couple and an older couple who seem to be together. During Sheley’s hearings, the court wants to know who is in the courtroom and their reason for being here, I overhear the older woman say they are here for Russell Reed. The bailiff tells them if there is any trouble in the courtroom with Sheley, everyone should go to the jury room at the back far side of the courtroom. Russell Reed, 93, of Sterling is the first homicide victim in this alleged killing spree.

I must have a puzzled look on my face because the bailiff asked me wasn't I aware of the procedure if there was trouble with Sheley in the courtroom? I tell her I hadn't heard that before, but had decided on my own, if Sheley represents himself, I'm sitting in the back row. LOL ! She repeated the plan to me and said that door will be unlocked. I'm sure this plan wasn't formulated just for Sheley, Knox County has had other violent crime cases, even where the defendant represented himself....always good to have a plan.

A female (late teens or early 20’s) comes in and sits in the back row on the defense side of the courtroom. The bailiff asks her the normal questions, I couldn’t hear her response but I do hear the bailiff tell her she is not allowed to say anything to Sheley when he comes in the courtroom, if she does she will be asked to leave. Hmmm, I will try to find out more about her.

Next I see a Whiteside County Sheriff deputy, in uniform, speaking with some of the Sheriff’s deputies from Knox County. I get the impression from their conversation, the Knox County guys would be glad to ship Sheley back to Whiteside County with this guy….but it doesn’t sound as if Whiteside is too crazy about dealing with him either.

I know there has been one altercation at the Knox County Jail here in Galesburg involving Sheley . It was reported a guy was hassling him, so Sheley got the screws out of a bar on the wall and attacked the guy with the bar. The screws were found in his pocket. IIRC, the fight was stopped before anyone was hurt. There was another incident at the jail involving Sheley, but because of the gag order, no information has been released about it. The Whiteside Sheriff deputy and another man take a seat right behind me. I turned and asked him if he came down to check Sheley out, he said, ”yeah”.

Another group of people come in the courtroom that I haven’t seen before, there are seven or eight of them. ( I didn't actually count) One of Ronald Randall’s sisters said they were family of some of the victims from Rock Falls, she had seen them at a “victims meeting” in Whiteside County, but wasn’t sure whose relatives they are. The four victims Sheley has been indicted for killing in Rock Falls were 2 men ages 25 and 29, a woman age 20 and her 2 year old son. One of the women speaks with Shirley Pringle, she must be the victims advocate for Whiteside County. I also notice the Whiteside County States Attorney, Gary Spencer is sitting behind me. I'm sure everyone wants to know how this trial will proceed.

The counsel for both sides are taking their places (prosecution has an extra man today from the Attorney General's office) and 3 members of accredited press are in court today.

Sheley is brought into the courtroom fully shackled and accompanied by his "entourage" of Sheriff's personnel. Sheley takes a good look around the courtroom but doesn’t acknowledge his “supporter”. I did find out she is a local girl who spent some time in Knox County jail and got to know Sheley. She is a small girl and sitting in the back row, he may not have seen her. As far as I know Nicholas Sheley is married, so I don’t know what is up with this new “friend”. The only other person I have seen in court “for” Sheley was his ex-wife, back on August 8, she was not there to support him, but to hold him accountable for the confusion and fear he has brought into their children’s lives. You can read more about that encounter here.
(I also found a link to an article by Susan Kaufman of the Galesburg Register- Mail, She was able to find Sheley's ex-wife and further interview her after the confrontation. You can read that article here. )

Ninth Circuit Judge James Stewart enters the courtroom and court is in session. For the record he recognizes seated at the defense table are Court Appointed co-counsel, Jeremy Karlin; Public Defender, James Harrell and of course Nicholas Sheley. At the prosecution table is Knox County States Attorney, John Pepmeyer; Assistant Attorney General, Michael Atterberry; Assistant Attorney General, Steve Plazibat; and another attorney from the Attorney Generals office, sorry I didn't get his name, he has spelled it in court three times now and I still can't catch it, lol, it starts El_ _ _.

Judge Stewart says that earlier this fall he ruled there was bona fide doubt in regards to the defendants fitness and Dr. Terry Killian was appointed by the court to conduct the fitness evaluation. Now that those results are in, he would like to hear from both sides.

Michael Atterberry starts off by saying the issue of bona fide doubt was raised by the defense attorneys this fall. Based on the court-ordered fitness evaluation conducted by Dr. Terry Killian, dated November 21, 2008, the peoples opinion is there is no bona fide doubt to stand trial.

Jeremy Karlin says that the defense concurs there is no bona fide doubt to stand trial. He continues, if the court agrees, we need to visit Sheley's motion. (Sheley submitted a handwritten motion dated September 19 that was sealed by the court until Sheley's fitness was determined.)

Judge Stewart then rules that he finds no bona fide doubt to stand trial, because of his filing of the motion, the court asks Sheley if he wishes to proceed. Sheley says yes.

This is the point that Shirley Pringle saves me! My pen quit working! Normally I have more than one, but today I didn't grab an extra because this pen was full of ink!! I asked Shirley if she had an extra pen and she didn't...but she was so kind ...she gave me hers anyway and told me to keep it. I can't tell you how much I appreciate her kindness !!!! Merry Christmas Shirley, and all the best to you for 2009!

Karlin tells the court that Sheley gave the defense a copy of the handwritten motion. They do have a response, but have waited to file it until Sheley renews his motion.

Judge Stewart says that the written motion sets forth a couple of issues:

  • Whether to hire private counsel or represent self.
  • Claim of conflict of interest with current attorneys, based on different theories of defense.
  • Claim of ineffective counsel, motions and procedures applied against his wishes.

Stewart continues that he will allow the state 21 days to file their response, because the motion was sealed when entered with the court, the state hasn't been able to review it.

Jeremy Karlin tells the court that defense counsel has a response to Sheley's motion, but due to the ineffective counsel issue, they will need to revise it and will take the extra time as well. My notes get a little confusing here because next I have: In response to Sheley's motion, Sheley is unable to intelligently waive his right to counsel and with regard to Indiana v. Edwards, Mr. Sheley suffers from a serious mental condition and is not competent to represent himself. This conclusion is based on an independent evaluation conducted by Dr. Robert M. Hanlon, a clinical neuropsychologist in Chicago and assistant professor at Northwestern University. Dr. Hanlon's evaluation has been filed with the court as a sealed exhibit. I don't know, perhaps they need more time to change wording???? Whatever, because the state gets the time, it doesn't hurt for the defense to wait to submit their response as well.

States Attorney John Pepmeyer tells the court that the state wants to know what is the true relief that Sheley seeks:

  • conflict of interest ?
  • ineffective counsel ?
  • to represent self ?

I'm sorry, my notes show that Judge Stewart made a statement here, but I didn't get it down. Based on the next response from the state I think he said all issues are relevant.

Michael Atterberry says the state will respond on all 3 issues. Atterberry also says that the neuropsychological issues need to be determined , if factual.

Judge Stewart then referring to Indiana v. Edwards, a June 2008 Supreme Court decision that found the standard for finding a person fit to stand trial is not as high as the standard for allowing a defendant to represent himself, said, "There is no procedure, protocal or policy on how to do this." Stewart called the matter "unchartered ground and the court has to invent procedure when there is not precedent."

Stewart also said that the court could have additional counsel appointed to present case law to Sheley so he can make a decision about representing himself without his perceived conflicting interests of his attorneys. When asked if he would like an additional lawyer appointed, Sheley said, "I would." Stewart said the additional counsel would also have to be capital litigation qualified. He also stated the Illinois Supreme Court has ruled there must be two attorneys appointed to a death penalty case (when defendant is indigent) but he doesn't think there is a limit to the number of court appointed attorneys.

Michael Atterberry asks the court if needed could they have more than 21 days to respond to Sheley's motion. There is a conflict they need to research where Sheley's motion is to remove counsel and the defense motion is to show that Sheley is not able to make this decision.

Steve Plazibat recommends 45 days to respond. Judge Stewart says he will give 30 days. The response from both parties will be due January 23. The Judge says that the case management hearing scheduled for December 31 is a statutory requirement.

I can hear the rumbling of Sheley's voice talking to defense counsel. James Harrell says that Sheley has a couple questions, he wants to know if he can have copies of the transcripts for today's hearing. Sheley also wants this delay charged to the state. The judge says no, the delay is on the defense motion. I think he ok'd the transcripts though.

Steve Plazibat wants to cancel the case management hearing for Dec. 31 because of the representation issue. Judge Stewart says no, it is a statutory hearing and must be held. He also scheduled a case management hearing for January 30 at 1:30. He said representation on discovery is given to this defense.

Court is recessed.

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  1. Great coverage katfish! Have you had the opportunity to meet any of the victim's families?

    I forget. Is there a gag order on all parties? I'm wondering if any family member can talk to you.

  2. Hello Sprocket,
    Yes, I have had the opportunity to meet and get to know some of Ronald Randall's family. They never miss a court date. The gag order is not on any of the family members, but that hasn't been necessary as they don't make public comments that I know of.
    I have received e-mail from other victim's family members. Some of those far away follow my blog to keep up on what's going on. That in itself makes my time spent covering this trial well worth it. Of course, you know I have followed true crime and trials long before I ever heard of Nicholas Sheley. It is gratifying to know that I have helped others deal with this tragedy in their lives, even in some small way.
    I want to thank you for encouraging me to blog and for carrying my coverage of the Sheley case on Trials and Tribulations. You're a gem!

  3. I know how rewarding it can be when people are grateful for one's efforts.

    You're welcome katfish. I think your reporting is very well presented. Now, does your county have a public information office? If not, you should be able to call the judge's clerk, and ask her what is the name of the prosecutor that you missed. She should have it. All that information is public record and is available to you under the Freedom Of Information ACT.

    I encourage you to consider attending some other pretrial hearings in other cases that grab your interest (if you can, of course). Even try to experience judge's at other courthouses, if there are some within driving distance. The legal process is quite fascinating to me and it's valuable to get a sense on how different judges rule their courtrooms as well as how they accept arguments.

    I recently saw a few episodes of a reality show that Dick Wolf produced in 2002-2004 called Crime & Punishment. It was filmed in San Diego County and involved real cases. Short wikipedia entry here.

    There was one case, a murder case. It was the prosecutor's FIRST murder case, and he was presenting most of the witnesses. I was flabbergasted on how the judge berated the prosecutor (outside the presence of the jury, of course) for his "lengthy" case! He was complaining that witnesses he was presenting were taking a whole day when they should have taken only an hour! The judge went on and on about how quickly he presented cases when he was a lawyer. I was quite surprised by that.

    Often times, we don't get to see the nuances that go on behind the scenes in these cases unless we are in the courtroom, observing them for outselves.

  4. Thanks for your input, Sprocket. I may visit some other courthouses after this trial is over. Peoria is just 40 miles from me and they also have a federal courthouse. I am very interested in the legal process too. The cases that I have followed gavel to gavel, by live feed on the internet, have certainly highlighted how different judges affect the way cases are presented...some good...some not so good.
    I would like to follow this case through, Whiteside County is about 70 or 80 miles from me, so I don't know how feasible that will be. St. Louis is about 4.5 hours from here. We'll see.

  5. Hey, good job! Come see my treasures!