The Illinois Supreme Court has quelled a two-year legal effort by media organizations to make certain information public in the Kirk Zimmerman murder case. One justice has also filed a dissenting opinion.
Zimmerman is charged with shooting his ex-wife Pamela four times in her office on East Washington Street in November 2014.
Zimmerman's defense lawyers wanted to prevent media access to the text of two pre-trial motions and to hold the hearings on those motions in secret. The motions deal with potential evidence the defense said it believed is inflammatory enough to prevent a fair trial.
The circuit court had ruled disclosure of even the text of the Zimmerman defense motions could make it difficult to find an impartial jury.
The Pantagraph newspaper, the Illinois Press Association, and WGLT filed a case in late 2016 seeking disclosure of the motions on First Amendment and common law grounds that the public should have access to legal filings and case records.
In March 2017, an appeals court agreed, saying access to motions plays a positive role in the functioning and fairness of the criminal justice process. Sometimes, such motions expose improper police action, they said. The judges also wrote public access to decisions about what evidence gets into a trial and what doesn’t improves public confidence in the system.
The Illinois Supreme Court ruled Thursday in favor of Zimmerman’s defense, saying the right of public access is not absolute under both common law and the First Amendment. The court said it is customary for courts to hold off on disclosure of some evidence before trial.
In the opinion written by Justice Mary Jane Theis, the Supreme Court said the trial court judge tried to balance competing public disclosure and fair trial interests by holding out sensitive and inflammatory information. The circuit court agreed to reconsider the secrecy ruling after jury selection.
Justice Robert Thomas disagreed, saying the high court did not address the question whether a procedural rule used to bolster Zimmerman’s case was intended to apply to criminal or civil matters. He said Supreme Court rules do not yet address the major question in the case. Thomas also wrote that it was a mistake to equate the language of motions with actual evidence collected. He said it was unfortunate the motions were detailed, but that doesn’t mean they are raw discovery material.
McLean County prosecutors did not take a position on hiding the motions. The state’s attorney’s office also said it did not intend to use the material covered in the defense filing during the trial.
Kirk Zimmerman is free on bond, but under home confinement pending the trial.
The next court appearance for Zimmerman is Oct. 25.
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