Saturday, November 7, 2009

Nicholas Sheley Withdraws Guilty Plea; Change of Venue For Murder Trial Denied, For Now. Part 1

Friday, November 6, was another pretrial hearing at the Knox County courthouse in the murder case of accused spree killer Nicholas Sheley. The purpose of the hearing was for both parties to argue the defense motion for change of venue and the state’s response to the motion. The court also planned to discuss Sheley’s previously stated intention to change his plea to guilty for the murder of Ronald Randall, 65, Galesburg.

Sheley told the court at a hearing on September 29 that he wished to plead guilty to all 17 counts in the kidnapping and bludgeoning death of Randall. If convicted in Randall’s death Sheley may face the death penalty. Sheley is also accused of killing seven others in the two-state killing spree in late June 2008.

Ninth Circuit Judge James Stewart denied the defense request for the change of venue saying that moving the trial now would be premature. When Stewart asked Sheley if he still wanted to plead guilty, defense attorney Jeremy Karlin told the court , “He does not wish to plead guilty at this time.” I will cover this in greater detail and supply links to the defense first supplemental motion for change of venue, two defense exhibits and the state’s response to the motion within my “in the courtroom report”:

When I walk into the courtroom, the row reserved for the accredited press, the front row on the defense side of the courtroom, is almost full. I see a guy I know from a radio station I listen to. I haven’t seen him in court before and his mother is a friend of mine, so I stop and say hello. I notice behind the press are people who are representatives of the defense, a private investigator and several administrative assistants. There are a man and woman I don't know but I'm sure are with defense attorney John Hanlon.

There are already a lot of people sitting on the prosecution side of the courtroom. Family of Ronald Randall are sitting in the first and third rows. In the second row are two of Randall’s friends and a couple who I recognize as family of Russell Reed, 93, of Sterling, IL. Reed was the first victim in the alleged killing spree. I take a seat in between Reed’s family and Randall’s friends.

Knox County Victim’s Rights Advocate, Shirley Pringle, is sitting with Mr. Randall’s family in the front row. She turns and says something to me about being a “personality“. I was interviewed by a local weekly paper called “The Zephyr” this week about blogging and Katfish…Ponders. They ran the story on the front page so I guess I’m a “personality” this week. LOL

A woman sitting with Shirley asks me if I’m Katfish. I recognize her as the Victim’s Rights Advocate for Whiteside County. She says she just found this blog the other day. (I didn’t catch her name, but if you are reading this, welcome! ) There are 5 victims of this alleged killing spree in Whiteside County. No doubt she is a great source of help for the relatives of these victims, I know Shirley is invaluable to Knox County.

Sheriff David Clague and Jail Administrator Captain David Caslin are here, which means that Sheley is in the building. I notice Gary Spence the Whiteside County States Attorney is here too as well as a few other I don't know but have seen before. I guess everyone is curious what is going to happen today.

At 9:25 Sheley is brought into the courtroom fully shackled. He is escorted by four Sheriff's deputies and there are two bailiffs nearby, as well as one at the door outside the courtroom. This is all the normal procedure. One thing that is different is Sheley comes in wearing a bullet proof vest. I have seen him with it on outside the courthouse but never in the courtroom. Wonder what's up with that? He sits down at the defense table takes off his readers and closes his eyes.

At 9:50 Judge Stewart calls court in session and we go on the record. At the defense table is co-counsel Jeremy Karlin, then Sheley, co-counsel John Hanlon and then Public Defender James Harrell. Because this is a death penalty case Sheley is appointed 3 attorneys. At the table for the state is Illinois Assistant Attorney General Bill Elward, Knox County States Attorney John Pepmeyer, and also from the Attorney general’s Office Michael Atterberry and Stephen Plazibat. The Attorney General's office will be assisting in prosecuting Sheley in Whiteside County too.

Jeremy Karlin tells the court that the state and the defense have agreed to some stipulations regarding evidence:
Exhibit A-Script of questions from defense phone poll
Exhibit B-Results from the first phone poll conducted June 2, 2009

Exhibit C- I think this was the results from the second phone poll conducted October 8, 2009 ( I’m sorry I don’t have a copy of this).

Karlin then reads off a list of exhibits from various media outlets. I didn’t get them all in my notes but they are referenced in the Defense First Supplemental To Motion for Change of Venue. Stephen Plazibat acknowledges the stipulation for the record.

Jeremy Karlin gets up to address the court. I’m not able to get down direct quotes of what he says but will give you the jest of it, as I understand it. Karlin says that with regard to change of venue this case has received coverage not just locally but perhaps even nationally. He tells the court that we judge ourselves by the way we judge those accused of even the most heinous of crimes. Karlin then presents a Power Point presentation to the court which is shown on the wall adjacent to the defense table.

The beginning of the Power point starts with,” With his life at stake, he should not be tried in an atmosphere by_______________________. “I missed the end but if memory serves me correctly he said something to the effect of …“an atmosphere that as a result of pretrial publicity, the jury pool has been exposed to substantial, inaccurate and inflammatory information about Nicholas Sheley and the present case“…..this is a quote from the defense motion so if not exactly what was said it shouldn’t be too far off the mark.

Karlin cites case law of Irwin vs. Dowd U.S. 717 (1961) and says he feels there are striking similarities between that and the Sheley case.
In that case:

  • 6 individuals were killed in 1 county, while the COV motion was granted, the trial was moved to an adjoining county, therefore the same media outlets.
  • Facts inadmissible at trial were reported
  • In the voir dire, 8 of 12 jurors had professed an opinion of the defendants guilt.

In this case:

  • Alleged murder of 8 in 3 jurisdictions. One in Knox County, Five in Whiteside County and Two in Missouri.
  • The publicity discussed facts that are inadmissible at trial:
    Defendants desire to plead guilty
    Incidents at the jail
    Behavior in court
    Disagreements with counsel
    Forensic Evidence
    Background of the murder victims
    Behavior of the victim’s family
    Chris Minor from WQAD who conducted a phone interview with Mr. Sheley, and is present in court today, asked Sheley, ”Why don’t you just plead guilty and get it over with?”
    (More of that interview is cited in the defense supplemental motion on page 9, #18.)

  • 85% of those who responded to our phone survey believe defendant is guilty.

  • 80% had heard of the case. Karlin listed several different media outlets from throughout the region including print, radio, TV, and bloggings (that's a 1st in this case).

(Try as I might to locate the case of Irwin vs. Dowd I wasn’t successful. I did find many cases that cited the case law from Irwin vs. Dowd, but this rookie doesn’t know how to properly reference those cases; therefore, I’ll give it to you in my words, to my understanding. If I’m way off base I won’t be offended if someone corrects me. My understanding of the way Karlin is referencing this case law is that even though the standard for determining potential juror bias is the voir dire process, Irwin vs. Dowd found that isn’t always the case if someone has already developed an opinion, regardless of their intention to judge impartially, so there should be a change in venue.)

Karlin says there has been an enormous amount of media interest in this case, he says this courtroom is full and half is media interest. (I take a count in the gallery, of the 27 people present 6 are media that I recognize, one I don't know, a very young guy, could be a student and since he mentioned bloggers I'll count myself, that's 8 or about 30%. Only a slight exaggeration. LOL)

Karlin continues with the Power Point demonstration. For the sake of space, I will refer you to pages 16 and 17 , items #34-38, in the Supplemental Motion For COV that I provided a link to above. This is the same information. Next my notes say that in Exhibit B (link above) there is a decreasing number of people responding. Irwin v. Dowd speaks to that. Blanket venire.(Sorry so cryptic)

Karlin then moves on to Exhibit C. This is the results from the second round of phone polls done on October 8, after Sheley's September Battery conviction related to the jailhouse incident. (I don't have copies of these results yet but I'll tell you what I have in my notes.)

  • 82% described knowledge of the case.

  • 86% believed he was "probably" not guilty

  • 4 out of 708 or 1% believe he is "probably" innocent.

  • 63% believed because of prior knowledge of the case it would be hard to be impartial.

  • 37% reported they believed they could be impartial and decide only on admissable evidence.

Karlin says that prejudice against Nicholas Sheley is not going to eb. He asks, is what people are actually saying indicative of what they are actually feeling? Karlin plays for the court audio recordings from the 1st and 2nd polls. Afterward he says they point to an issue not found in polls- the talk in town. Karlin says these people's comments are dehumanizing the least there was one guy who was willing to buy him a beer before he puts a bullet in his head. Karlin then plays a 3 way conversation the poll picked up on a speaker phone, he says this call shows a persuasive prejudice against the defendant and tells the court in summation....if a change of venue is not justified in this case, is there a case that would be?

Because of space concerns on blogger I am doing this hearing as a 2 part entry so it doesn't get a smooshed together. I will link to the other in each entry for the ease of the readers. Click here for part 2 unless you are on the main page and then it is directly below this entry. Sphere: Related Content


  1. Thank you for the excellent reporting. Galesburg is a long drive from St. Louis...your blog helps to keep us informed.

  2. Anon November 8,

    Thank you for commenting. Galesburg is a very long drive from St.Louis. I am glad that this blog helps you to keep up with this case. My intent is to give as much of a detailed account of what happens in the courtroom as I can.

    I hope someone picks up the blogging when Sheley's case makes it to MO. I haven't done any research yet on what county Festus is in, or where the county seat for that county is.

    December 4 is the next case management hearing.