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McLean County state's attorney testifies on bill to change court rules around victims of sexual crimes

McLean County State's Attorney Don Knapp
A 2021 McLean County sexual assault case provided a “real life” example of why victims need protection, said State's Attorney Don Knapp.

A proposal to allow Illinois judges to clear the courtroom during testimony from sexual assault victims, regardless of their age, cleared an Illinois Senate committee Tuesday, following testimony from McLean County State’s Attorney Don Knapp.

The provision to amend the state’s criminal code related to sexual offenses will protect the privacy of victims, even those who do not come forward with an allegation until adulthood, Knapp told the panel. The bill, sponsored by state Sen. Sally Turner, R-Lincoln, was unanimously approved by the Criminal Law Committee.

News media will be excluded under the proposed change. A judge must make a finding that parties without a direct connection to the case are present and may be removed during the sensitive testimony.

“We don’t care whether you are a day short of your 18th birthday or a day over your 18th birthday. When you’re testifying, if you are a victim of a sex crime as a minor, we will provide the judge discretion to clear the courtroom,” said Knapp.

A 2021 McLean County sexual assault case provided a “real life” example of why victims need protection, said Knapp.

During the Aaron Parlier trial in October, two of the defendant’s former cellmates attended portions of Parlier’s bench trial, according to the prosecutor. The victim was not called as a witness; the state relied upon a lengthy, disturbing video of the sexual assaults recorded by Parlier to tell the victim’s story.

“Our victim was scared to death to go in there and testify in front of anybody — let alone people who were jailed up with her assailant,” Knapp told the committee.

Parlier, a former piano teacher, was sentenced to 450 years for sexually assaulting a minor girl and possession of child pornography. He faces five more trials, each of them related to other students he allegedly sexually assaulted.

The courtroom was cleared of all but news media during Parlier’s trial as the child pornography was displayed, an issue that is addressed in a second bill pending in Illinois. Senate Bill 3061, also sponsored by Turner and supported by Knapp, would give judges the discretion to clear the courtroom when illegal images of a minor are played in court. The state was put in the unusual position of objecting to the closure, based on Knapp’s opinion that courts currently lack such authority.

SB 2942 also has the support of Champaign County State’s Attorney Julia Rietz, who serves as president of the Illinois State’s Attorney’s Association. Champaign County also has had experience with the testimony issue, Rietz told the committee.

Hayze Schoonover’s predatory sexual assault conviction in Champaign County was reversed by the Fourth District Appellate Court based on a judge’s decision to partially clear the courtroom during a victim’s testimony. In December, the Illinois Supreme Court reversed the appellate decision and reinstated the conviction.

In its decision, the Illinois Supreme Court said the media is “in effect, the presence of the public” during the trial.

Exclusion of people with no direct interest in a sexual assault affords protection when a victim is “in her most vulnerable and traumatic time,” said Rietz.

The committee received comments in opposition to the proposal from the Illinois ACLU. In a written statement filed by ACLU attorney Rebecca Glenburg, the civil rights group argues that the Senate bill “is a meat cleaver where a scalpel is required.”

The bill violates the constitutional rights of a defendant to a fair and public trial, said the statement.

“The right to a public trial is not satisfied merely by allowing the press to be present; individual members of the public also have a First Amendment right to attend,” according to the ACLU.

Edith began her career as a reporter with The DeWitt County Observer, a weekly newspaper in Clinton. From 2007 to June 2019, Edith covered crime and legal issues for The Pantagraph, a daily newspaper in Bloomington, Illinois. She previously worked as a correspondent for The Pantagraph covering courts and local government issues in central Illinois.
Maggie Strahan is a Public Affairs Reporting program intern for WGLT and WCBU.
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