Pretrial publicity prejudice was not a problem in this murder trial. Defendant received a fair trial because the trial was more than three years removed from the passion in the community and because voir dire resulted in an unbiased jury.
People v. Sheley, 2014 IL App (3d) 120012 (08/13/2014).
Murderous Crime Spree
Defendant was arrested after a murderous and extended crime spree. It was the summer of 2008.
The allegations included that Defendant murdered a man in Whiteside County on June 23, 2008 and stole his car. Defendant then stole and burglarized other vehicles in Whiteside, Lee, and Rock Island Counties.
This Murder & Crime
He then stole a company vehicle that he drove to Galesburg, where he committed the instant offenses on June 28. In this case, the victim was kidnapped, beaten to death, and his truck was stolen by the defendant.
Defendant is further alleged to have then returned to Whiteside County where he murdered four more people, including a two-year-old child, and then drove in this victim’s truck to Festus, Missouri, where he killed two more people. Sheley was ultimately arrested on July 1, in Granite City, Illinois.
As you can imagine, the media coverage was extensive.
Motion to Change Venue
Defendant commissioned polls which showed that the majority of people believed defendant to be guilty. However, the court denied the motion to change venue. The trial was still a ways off and the judge wanted to see what would happen in voir dire.
About 2 years later, the start picking a jury. The trial court distinguished the answers given in the public opinion poll from their responsibilities as jurors. The court noted that as jurors, they are instructed on their role as well as the law.
In total, 97 jurors were questioned over a six-day period; 69 were removed for cause. Four alternates were chosen. Three jurors were aware of media reports of the other murders Defendant was accused of committing.
Both parties exhausted their peremptory challenges.
Some of the procedures included:
- A questionnaire created by both parties
- Questionnaire disseminated before questioning started
- Unlimited time to question the jurors
- Questioned Individually rather than in panels
- Questioning itself was extensive (lasted 6 days)
- Exact prior knowledge examined
- Specifics of media exposure uncovered
- Of first 64 people 40 dismissed for cause
- Both sides exhausted all 14 peremptory challenges
- 33 potential jurors were examined to find the 4 alternates
The process revealed that most of the jury pool had heard something about the case at one time or another, with varying degrees of specific recollection and factual inaccuracies. Defendant used his peremptory challenges to strike those jury members who had heard of his other crimes. After he ran out, there were three he could not strike.
The judge was satisfied with their statements that they would be impartial and enter judgment only on the evidence presented. Defendant’s motion to strike them or to give him more peremptories was denied.
Was the defendant denied a fair trial by the court’s rulings denying a change in venue due to prejudice caused by pretrial publicity and denying his motions to strike juror members who were aware of his other crimes?
General Law on Pretrial Publicity Prejudice
A defendant is entitled to a trial by an impartial jury. U.S. Const., amend. VI; Ill. Const. 1970, art. I, § 8. An impartial jury is “a jury capable and willing to decide the case solely on the evidence before it.” People v. Kirchner, 194 Ill. 2d 502, 528-29 (2000).
There is no requirement that jurors be ignorant of the facts and exposure to pretrial publicity alone does not demonstrate prejudice. Kirchner, 194 Ill. 2d at 529. However, a juror must be able to set aside his opinions and decide the case solely on the evidence presented in court. Kirchner, 194 Ill. 2d at 529.
There is no presumption of prejudice as a result of a juror’s knowledge of pretrial publicity. People v. Coleman, 168 Ill. 2d 509, 547 (1995). When a juror states he is able to be impartial, he should be believed. There are some circumstances, however, where inflammatory pretrial publicity is so pervasive that the jurors cannot be impartial, regardless of their sincere claims to the contrary.
A defendant is entitled to a change of venue due to pretrial publicity where a reasonable apprehension exists that he cannot receive a fair and impartial trial. People v. Little, 335 Ill. App. 3d 1046, 1052 (2003). The best evidence of whether a fair and impartial jury can be chosen is the answers given by potential jurors during voir dire. Little, 335 Ill. App. 3d at 1054.
Defendant had the timing of his motion for change in venue all wrong.
Defendant’s first motion for a change in venue was about a year after the arrest. The actual trial was still two years away. The original polling that was done, thus, captured the public’s sentiment at the height of the hysteria surrounding the murders and defendant’s arrest. That motion was too early
Defendant then went pro se and did nothing. The second motion for change in venue was made at the end of voir dire. This was after counsel re-entered and after the court felt that they had just picked a good jury. This motion was too late.
Pretrial Publicity Prejudice Precautions Taken
The trial court took specific steps to ensure that an unbiased jury was selected. See measures outlined above. The trial court noted that the chosen jurors accepted the seriousness of their duty and each vowed to set aside any extraneous information or opinions he or she knew or held about the case.
The appellate court, after reviewing the record including voir dire, was satisfied that the trial court seated a fair and impartial jury.
Voir dire is a “significant tool” in determining juror whether a potential juror can set aside any biases and make a determination on the evidence presented.
In this case, the record established that an unbiased jury was seated and Defendant received a fair trial. The results of voir dire established that a fair and impartial jury in spite of the pretrial publicity.