Cellphones ringing during testimony at the trial of the man accused of killing relatives of Oscar winner Jennifer Hudson so piqued a judge that he withdrew permission Wednesday for journalists to bring them into court.
Judges Charles Burns complained the phones — which only reporters had been allowed to use — went off in the middle of testimony at least three times in less than two weeks; he also cited a journalist who held a pen in the corner of her mouth, deeming it a distraction. Journalists had been using the phones to send emails with details from the trial.
A media liaison for the often quick-tempered Burns said the judge had given reporters ample warning that their phones could be yanked if they didn’t remember to switch them to ‘silent’ during the trial for William Balfour, Hudson’s former brother-in-law. He is accused of killing the actress and singer’s mother, brother and 7-year-old nephew in a fit of jealous rage over his then-wife.
“If he did this after the first violation, it would have been overreaction,” Irv Miller said. “But after the fourth time? It was distracting to the judge and jurors.”
Rules for reporters were discussed for months before the trial. Burns offered the rare concession of letting reporters use their cellphones in court — but only for email. He barred postings to Twitter and other social media from the courtroom, believing reporters pounding out their tweets would be particularly disruptive.
Even in Los Angeles, where celebrity trials are routinely televised, cellphone use is usually forbidden, said Manny Medrano, a Los Angeles attorney and former television reporter who regularly comments on high-profile cases.
“Cellphones going off are a hundred times more disruptive than cameras, which these days are so quiet you barely know they are there,” he said. “Journalists in Chicago were given the opportunity — and they blew it. I don’t blame the judge.”
The failure of Burns’ experiment with cellphones comes in a state that has only recently begun seriously looking at allowing cameras in court. The Illinois Supreme Court this year announced it hoped to test their use in a limited number of cases.
The journalist who held her pen in her mouth was initially told that was Burns’ primary complaint. But Miller said the judge also believed she was sending emails too frequently, though the court rules don’t define what is too frequent emailing.
None of the violations cited by the judge involved social media, said Miller. Reporters will still be allowed to use cellphones and tweet from an overflow room. There is no audio or video from trial in that room, however — just a live transcript scrolling up a screen.