Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Nicholas Sheley Murder Trial - Day One August 29

Katfishponders...did not attend the morning session of day one in the murder trial of Nicholas Sheley. I did follow from home via Twitter from 2 members of the mainstream media, Jennifer Wheeler cops/courts reporter at The Register-Mail.(a Galesburg paper) and Tara Becker cops/courts reporter for Sauk Valley Media in Dixon-Rock Falls-Sterling (publication in Whiteside County, IL, Nicholas Sheley's home stomping grounds and where 5 of the alleged murders took place). 

For those not familiar with "tweeting" you can follow either of the links above to each reporters page. You can just follow on their page as you "land" there or if you wish to be able to follow both or more "peeps" tweets  at one location (recommended) you can easily create an account. Creating an account doesn't obligate you to do anything other than read but you can "tweet" if you wish, even if just asking questions of whomever you are following.
Twitter is a social networking and microblogging service that allows, for example, you to answer the  question, "What are you doing?" by sending short text messages 140 characters in length, called "tweets", to your friends, or "followers." Note: I call my friends/followers "peeps" just because it seems appropriate ...haha....I do have a Twitter account here but to date I haven't done much but may have noticed I have a problem with brevity. (◐.̃◐)Please "follow" me if you like, you never know when I might get a tweet up my_<('.'<)_. Please follow me here at katfishponders too....the widget for that is on the right of this page. Now down to business....

Before the first group of potential jurors were brought in, the prosecution advised the court they will be dropping 7 of the 17 counts Nicholas Sheley has been facing for the last 3 years in this case. The counts dropped were:
  • three of the first-degree murder counts
  • two counts of aggravated kidnapping
  • one count of armed robbery and one count of robbery. 
The counts remaining against Sheley are  
  • 7 counts of  first-degree murder including the aggravating factors (carries a penalty of 20-60 years or natural life if  the jury finds  aggravating factors apply)
  • 2 counts of aggravated vehicular hijacking( class X felonies punishable by six to 30 years in prison, 60 years if the included aggravating factors are applied)
  • 1 count of possession of a stolen vehicle, a Class 2 felony with punishment ranging 3-15 years, a $25,000 fine and 2 years supervision after release. 
(When I came for the afternoon session, I was told that the charges were dropped in order to streamline the case for the jury)

Ninth Circuit Judge James Stewart then admonishes Nicholas Sheley of his rights at trial.  

(Nicholas Sheley knows his rights better than your average defendant, but there are rules of procedure and this is one of them. IMO, in a case like this one ,where there is a LOT of evidence against the defendant, his lawyers main focus is most likely to create a record and hold the court's feet to the fire on procedure.)


Knox County Courthouse in Galesburg, IL
 Close to a hundred citizens of Knox county were summoned to the Knox County Courthouse today to begin the process of jury selection. The potential jurors were brought into the largest courtroom in the 125 year old courthouse to receive orientation by Judge James Stewart.

The attorneys from both parties introduced themselves to the potential jurors before Judge Stewart began his orientation. 

Some of the things noted on Twitter that were included in the orientation are as follows:

Tara Becker

Tara Becker

Jennifer Wheeler

 From experience I know that the jury pool is advised how our court system works, the presumption of innocence and the burden of proof, which is the state's. The defense does not have to prove anything.
 If the jury isn't seated today I will try to attend a morning session so I can give you a more in depth account of the orientation for the jurors. As you can see from the sample tweets above, they just try to highlight what is happening. Do keep in mind that they are doing this "live" so they don't have the opportunity to verify facts.....IL doesn't allow cameras in the courtroom, so Twitter is the closest we have to live reporting from the is what it is. I just noticed that Jennifer Wheeler addressed her followers as "tweeps", love that!

 The potential jurors are sent to the basement to fill out the 16 page questionnaire with the witness list attached (so they can be supervised to avoid collaboration). The questionnaires assist the lawyers and judge in the voir dire process (saves time) and the witness list assists the court so they know of any relationships jurors may have to witnesses (again, saves time and ensures neither side has a "leg up"), after they are done they are dismissed and a number of the group will be asked to return tomorrow at 1:30 PM  for the first round of questioning. At 2:00PM today court will resume to hear a defense motion in limine to limit the photos that the state intends to use at trial. I am attending this, but first.....

Here is the jury questionnaire and the witness list for this trial.
Juror Info Sheet Sheley Witness List


I arrived at the courthouse at about 1:30PM which was in plenty of time for the 2PM hearing. I was glad to see the parking lot was open. The lot was closed in the morning to anyone but the potential jurors. Parking can be an issue on a normal day because the lot isn't very big. There is on the street parking on 2 sides of the courthouse but it is all parallel parking so it's limited. There is parking on a third side but there is a city park (Standish Park) in between the courthouse and the next street. I don't mind parking there because it's a nice walk through the arboretum, but sometimes I'm running late.....The judge ruled at the beginning of this case once they start no one is allowed in or out of the courtroom...I missed by 1 minute a while back and had to wait for a break to get in. much for feeling confident about the time....after I make my way through security and climb the 2 flights of stairs I see the doors are closed and an officer it standing in front of them. Thankfully I know this officer (from my many visits to Sheley's hearings), evidently he sees the dismay on my face and smiles before saying," You're welcome to go right in young lady." (I love people who enjoy their work AND call me young lady!)

When I come into the courtroom Sheley's attorney Jeremy Karlin is sitting at the defense table. The only other people in the room are the family of the victim, Ronald Randall,  sitting in the front row (behind the state's table) with retired Knox County Victim's rights advocate Shirley Pringle and the current victim's advocate Stacy Dutton. Over the last three years Randall's family have consistently been the first ones here and there is someone from the family at every hearing to represent Mr. Randall.

Today is a difficult day for anyone in the courtroom because the issue at hand is the arguments over what photos from Mr. Randall's autopsy and the crime scene where his body was found will be allowed at trial. 

(It's alleged that Nicholas Sheley killed Mr. Randall on June 28, 2008 at a car wash on Main Street, 5 or 6 blocks West Interstate74, before he dumped Randall's body among the dumpsters behind a HyVee grocery store a couple blocks West of the interstate and stole Mr. Randall's 2007 Chevy Silverado pick up and wallet so he could continue on his killing spree. Mr. Randall wasn't found until June 30, 2008, by then Sheley had allegedly killed 6 more people. )

Of course it's the pictures more than the arguments that is most difficult, but hearing the discussion is no walk in the park either. Out of respect for Mr. Randall and his family I will not go into much detail about the photos except to say they were projected onto the wall directly across from the jury box and adjacent to the gallery. (Nicholas Sheley and two of his guards were closest of anyone in the courtroom to the projection on the wall ...but now I'm getting ahead of myself.)

Within minutes more people are in the courtroom and the front row behind the defense is filled with media. All of the attorneys are present and a great deal of security is around when Sheley is brought in. The guards from the DOC are dressed in khaki pants and black polos with the DOC emblem on the left chest...they have their guns holstered in back. The Knox County Sheriff's detail are dressed in slacks and a jacket and the courthouse security is in full uniform. (This mode of dress was decided at the security hearing I reported earlier so the jury isn't prejudiced against the defendant as was his status to be unshackled with a stun belt on his leg and street clothes.)

When Nicholas Sheley came in the courtroom he looked much different than he had just 4 days earlier. Of course he had on street clothes instead of the bright yellow "escape suit " issued by the DOC but the same white 3/4 top sneakers. His lawyer had purchased him some khaki pants and a blue (almost denim blue) button down shirt. The shirt looked as though it had just come out of the package but was starting to get wrinkly (no doubt he had been kept in a holding cell between when the jury pool was sent downstairs and now)and he had rolled the sleeves up to the forearm where you could see some of his tattoos. The gel and spikey hair was replaced by a close cut and his face was clean shaven. When he is brought in he has on leg shackles and hand cuffs. He knelt on the seat of the wooden chair at the defense table and his leg shackles were removed then he stood up and his pink handcuffs were removed. You can tell he has a stun belt on his leg under his pants. (Or do I just notice it because I know it's there?)

Defense Attorney Jeremy Karlin began his argument by saying that when he was reappointed to the case, 3 weeks ago, he was told he would receive a list of evidence from the state. Karlin conceded he and Assistant Attorney General Bill Elward did have a meeting last week and he was shown a disc of photos from both crime scenes (Southards Car Wash and the back of HyVee grocery store). Karlin told the court, " Mr. Elward narrowed it down a bit (sarcasm)....didn't think the state would use both discs, adding Michael Atterbury  just handed him a list, which he appreciates but he has to go through them now."
Mr. Karlin continued, "The legal principles are clear...offer should be allowed if probative but not if prejudicial, cumulative, repetitive or just plain inflammatory."

Having said that Karlin started to Que up the photos on a laptop sitting on the table in front of the court clerk. before he turned on the projector, Jeremy Karlin addressed the court, saying he realized the court had ruled once a session started only the media would be allowed to enter and leave, but asked the court if Mr. Randall's family would be able to leave if the photos upset them too much. Of course Judge Stewart agreed.

As each photo was shown Bill Elward addressed the relevance of the photo and why the state felt it was necessary to use at trial. Most often  the relevance had to do with what element of a charge(s) the photo would support or why the state's pathologist had requested to use the photo to describe a particular injury. Jeremy Karlin would then make his objection to the particular photo. It seems as though they had narrowed down the photos to those that were being contested by the defense.

The Dr. who did the autopsy on Ronald Randall is Dr. Violette S. Hnilica MD. Doctor Hnilica is a Forensic Pathologist who practices in Peoria, Il. She is trained in the areas of Forensic Pathology, Chemical Pathology, Radioisotopic Pathology, Clinical Pathology & Anatomic Pathology. (WOW! That's a lot of education.) Shirley Pringle told me she has seen Dr. Hnilica testify and she is quite good on the stand.

(More often than not Medical Examiners or Pathologists can be very tedious testimony but when they are good they are captivating. I'm looking forward to her testimony. )

Wouldn't you know it, after the second photo the screen went blank. ( No fancy stuff here, when I say "screen" I mean the picture being projected on the wall. The Knox County board is notorious for refusing to spend a dime on this courthouse but that's a whole other blog.) Bill Elward jumped up to switch over to his laptop and Jeremy Karlin quipped, " Redundancy is a good thing."

While the attorneys worked on getting the photo presentation back up,  Sheriff David Clague approached the family about not putting themselves through seeing this,  but they opted to stay. (I do understand their stance but have been praying today they are doing ok. While viewing the photos it didn't bother me but I definitely dreamed about it last night.) After I had moved over in my row so I could observe Sheley's demeanor during the presentation,Stacy Dutton moved to my seat where she was closer to the family. Shirley Pringle was already on the other end in their row so they had the family "blanketed". These 2 women are awesome and Knox County is fortunate to have them as victims advocates, I'm certain the families they work with are appreciative. (My family was in that position years back and Shirley was a great help. Now that Shirley has retired [but still sits in for this case] she will be missed, but Stacy seems like a good fit for the job)

Speaking of Sheley's demeanor during the photo first he didn't look up but then he started looking without expression. When the attorneys got to the autopsy photos, Sheley chose to take some notes then picked up a book, “ The Trial Handbook for Illinois Lawyers”, off the defense table to read...the index....(◔_◔).

The court took a one hour recess to allow Jeremy Karlin time to go through a disc of pictures he hadn't known the state planned to use, they included crime scene photos and photos from the Russell Reed case. (The state contends after allegedly killing Russell Reed, Nicholas Sheley went on the run to avoid apprehension for that case and ended up here in Galesburg with a stolen van and only $3 for gas before he met up with Ronald Randall.)After the break the lawyers narrowed it down to 6 more pictures for the judge to rule on.


Judge James Stewart said some photos may be admitted to establish any fact relative to the case, however he told the state to make some choices between some repetitive photos. There are no stipulations between the parties to any facts of the case. He also said that something excluded may be admitted for another reason such as rebuttal.

Stewart said he didn't know if there would be witnesses to contradict the state's witness's conclusions. It would be different if two pathologists were arguing about the cause of death and needed to point out specific injuries in the photograph. However, he said these graphic images would be highly prejudicial.

“These are ultimately some of the most gruesome photos that I’ve seen in a long, long time... I’d have to say in 24 years I’ve seen some pretty bad, gruesome photos. If I can say that and other court personnel can say that and have a similar opinion, we have to be considerate about people who may be viewing them for the first time,” Stewart said.

Judge Stewart ruled specifically on 6 photos that cannot be used at trial. The most gruesome images of Randall will not be shown to the jurors. Stewart said, "If a lay person saw these and barfed we would have a mistrial or if one of them even made an audible gasp we'd have a mistrial". The state will not be able to show photographs of Reed either and must limit the number of crime scene images. One crime scene photo from HyVee in particular can be used but the image of Mr. Randall must be blurred or obscured in some way....adding he just wasn't sure of the probative value of that picture.

Stewart said if the prosecution wanted a witness to explain the injuries further, the person could use diagrams or draw pictures to illustrate.

Judge Stewart asked that that an order be submitted by the defense to reflect his rulings.

Court will resume at 9AM on Tuesday, August 30 for orientation with the second group of prospective jurors. The first 20 from today's group of jurors will be called back at 1:30 PM on Tuesday  to begin the first round of questioning. I will attend the afternoon session.

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  1. ((HUGS))) - This drives me nuts, they do the crime and then their lawyers want to bury the evidence because it paints their client in a bad light! Right...what about the victims??? I know, I know, this isn't about the victims - what a screwy world!

  2. Hey LCM! This sure is a crazy world! Some good news, the first 4 jurors were sworn in today....just 8 more and 4 alternates to go. Judge Stewart said trial may start next Tuesday (even afternoon) or Wednesday. He is much more optimistic than I am, but it is possible.

  3. This is such a wonderful post, love it!

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