Appeal from the Circuit Court of the 9th Judicial Circuit, Knox County, Illinois. Circuit No. 08-CF-338. Honorable James B. Stewart, Judge, Presiding.
The trial court's denial of defendant's motion for a new trial on the ground that he did not receive a fair trial by an impartial jury in a prosecution for first degree murder, aggravated vehicular kidnapping, and possession of a stolen motor vehicle due to pretrial publicity was upheld by the appellate court, since the record established that the trial court seated an unbiased jury and defendant received a fair trial.
JUSTICE O'BRIEN delivered the judgment of the court, with opinion. Justices Carter and Holdridge concurred in the judgment and opinion.
[¶1] Defendant Nicholas Sheley was convicted by a jury of first degree murder, aggravated vehicular kidnapping, and possession of a stolen motor vehicle, and sentenced to terms of imprisonment of natural life, 30 years and 7 years, respectively. He appeals his conviction, arguing that he was denied a fair trial by an impartial jury because of pretrial publicity. We affirm.
[¶3] In July 2008, defendant Nicholas Sheley was charged with numerous offenses, including first degree murder, aggravated vehicular hijacking, and possession of a stolen motor vehicle. 720 ILCS 5/9-1(a)(2), 18-4(a)(1), 16-1(a)(1)(A) (West 2008). The charges arose from a June 2008 incident in which Sheley was alleged to have beaten to death Ronald Randall, a Galesburg resident, stolen Randall's truck, and dumped Randall's body. The Galesburg incident was part of a string of offenses allegedly committed by Sheley over a several-day span in late June through early July 2008. The allegations included that Sheley murdered a man in Whiteside County on June 23 and stole his car; stole and burglarized other vehicles in Whiteside, Lee, and Rock Island Counties, and stole a company vehicle that he drove to Galesburg, where he committed the instant offenses on June 28. Sheley is further alleged to have then returned to Whiteside County where he murdered four people, including a two-year-old child, and then drove in Randall's truck to Festus, Missouri, where he killed two more people. Sheley was ultimately arrested on July 1, in Granite City, Illinois.
[¶4] Extensive publicity followed the alleged crime spree and continued after Sheley's arrest on July 1, and local media covered the court proceedings throughout the pendency of the case. The record includes 389 articles and news report transcripts, the majority of which mention the crimes Sheley was alleged to have committed outside of Knox County. Throughout the pretrial proceedings, the press covered Sheley's disagreements with his lawyers, his decision to proceed pro se and his eventual return to representation by counsel, and pretrial incidents in the county jail, where Sheley assaulted other prisoners and jail staff. Media coverage also included abolishment of the death penalty in Illinois and its effects on the Sheley trial, as well as coverage about unrelated crimes committed by Sheley's brother. In September 2008, the trial court issued an order prohibiting extra-judicial statements after Sheley held a press conference at the county jail.
[¶5] In March 2009, Sheley moved for a change of venue, arguing that the jury pool had been tainted by the extensive media coverage. Sheley filed a supplemental motion to change venue in June 2009, identifying specific instances of prejudicial information in the media reports. He argued that the pervasive media coverage exposed the jury pool to inaccurate, inflammatory, and sensationalized information, which was
sympathetic to the victim's family, and that a demonstrative bias existed. Included with the supplemental motion were the results of a public opinion survey commissioned by the defense. The survey indicated that as of June 2, 2009, the majority of people who responded to the survey and had heard at least some information about the case believed Sheley was guilty. Specifically, of the 850 people who responded, 76% recalled the case; 71% of those had at least some knowledge of it; 69% had learned about the case from the media and community discussion; 68% had an opinion about Sheley's guilt, with 87% believing him to probably be guilty; and 65% indicated they could be impartial as a juror. At the end of the poll, participants were provided the opportunity to leave a comment. The comments reflected that participants viewed Sheley as guilty, people were following the case, and the community was discussing it.
[¶6] Sheley filed a second supplemental motion for change of venue in July 2009, arguing that the media continued to report facts that would be inadmissible at trial, including information about the other murders he was alleged to have committed. In response to the change of venue motion, the State argued that the opinion poll also revealed that 205 people had no knowledge, which changed the poll results. Per the State's calculations, only 41% of potential jurors indicated they could not be impartial. On October 28, 2009, defense counsel filed an affidavit in support of the motion to change venue, attesting that there continued to be extensive media coverage of the case, including 173 articles and broadcast reports. The affidavit presented the results of a second public opinion poll of 3,619 Knox County voters, with 997 people answering the survey questions to some degree. The results of the poll indicated that as of October 8, 2009: 79% had knowledge of the case, with 82% of that number admitting that they knew at least some details; 52% were aware of information from the media and 44% from the media and discussion in ...