Lights, camera, legal action as federal court films first trial

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From corrupt governors through gang overlords, mobsters, terrorists and radicals, the downtown Dirksen Federal Courthouse has never been short of compelling characters.

At its best, the courtroom drama trumped anything the theater world could muster — but you had to be there to see it.

This week that changed. For the first time in a federal trial in Chicago, cameras are in the courtroom.

An Americans with Disabilities Act lawsuitbrought by former water department workerBiagio Stragapede againsthis former employer, the City of Evanston, may lack the razzmatazz of, say, the O.J. Simpson trial.

But with the blessing of Stragapede, his lawyers and Evanston, what’s expected to be a weeklong trial before U.S. District Judge Edmond Chang is being filmed by four digital cameras as part of a national pilot program.

“It’s not L.A. Law!” admitted Stragapede’s attorney, Tracy Ellen Stevenson, who welcomed the cameras but noted Chicago has lagged behind other districts in allowing filming.

Three days into the trial, Stevenson said, she has already forgotten that the cameras are there. Only when she walks out of the courtroom and sees a technician monitoring a feed from the cameras does she think “I should have spent 30 minutes doing my hair,” she joked.

Evanston corporation counsel Grant Farrar agreed the small cameras are unobtrusive and he has not noticed anyone behaving differently.

Thoughcourt proceedings are open to the pubic and free to attend, when compared with state courts nationwide,federal courts have in general been slow to open themselves to a wider audience.

Earlier this year, Cook County allowed cameras for the first time in a criminal court hearing for the sentencing of two men who murdered Chicago Police Officer Thomas Wortham IV. The federal pilot program, by contrast, allows cameras only in civil cases, and requires the consent of all parties. And you won’t be able to watch it until after the jury has reached its verdict.

U.S. District Judge Ruben Castillo, chief judge for the Northern District of Illinois, said he’d like to see more experimentation with cameras which “could be the wave of the future.” But participants in cases in Chicago have so far been reluctant to give their permission, he said.

If the experiments prove successful, they could eventually lead to criminal cases being filmed, Castillo said, though he noted concerns that “witnesses and jurors might start playing up to the camera.”

Though Stragapede’s case is the first trial to be filmed in Chicago’s federal court, it isn’t the first case to be filmed. An hourlong technical hearing in U.S. District Amy St. Eve’s courtroom was filmed in 2012.

That case, titled “Sloan Valve Company v. Zurn Industries,” also set a low bar for excitement. It was a patent dispute over a toilet flush system.

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