Metro-East News

Sleeping judge doesn’t guarantee a new trial, court rules

Nicholas Sheley is led out by police following his arrest in Granite City in 2008.
Nicholas Sheley is led out by police following his arrest in Granite City in 2008.

A sleeping judge isn’t enough for a new trial for convicted spree killer Nicholas Sheley, according to an appellate court.

A divided 3rd District Appellate Court in Ottawa has ruled that even if Whiteside County Judge Jeffrey O’Connor fell asleep during Sheley’s murder trial, it did not constitute a reversible error.

Sheley was convicted of the killings, which were part of a 2008 killing spree in Illinois and Missouri. He had killed an elderly man in Sterling and four people in Rock Falls, as well as another man in Galesburg, before crossing into Missouri and killing a couple in Festus.

A nationwide manhunt ended July 1, 2008, in Granite City, where tavern patrons recognized him from media coverage and called the police while he was outside smoking a cigarette.

Sheley was on trial for the four Illinois murders in 2014 when the lights were dimmed to show the jury security camera footage. When the attorneys asked to turn the lights back on, the judge didn’t reply, and allegedly had to be poked awake. He then broke for lunch.

The appeal was based on that moment and allegations that he fell asleep several times during the trial. O’Connor denied the allegations, calling them “disgusting.”

The appellate court cited — among others — an 1899 case in which a judge slept for five minutes during a trial in declaring that the judge had not lost control of the courtroom and the conviction should not be overturned.

Sheley’s attorney, Steve Greenberg, disagreed. “It sends an awful message to jurors that whatever is going on is just not important,” he said to the Chicago Tribune.

Another appellate judge disagreed with the decision, citing a Cook County murder conviction that was thrown out after the judge left the bench during a trial to take a phone call from another judge. “A judge cannot be actively present on the bench when he is asleep,” wrote Appellate Judge Mary O’Brien in her dissent.

Judges have apparently fallen asleep even during the most prominent cases, including the O.J. Simpson trial, U.S. Supreme Court arguments and the war crime trials at the International Criminal Court at The Hague, according to the Chicago Tribune.

In 2006, a new trial was ordered for a burglary defendant when the trial judge noted that a juror was half-asleep throughout the trial, and in 2001 a Texas execution was halted because the defendant’s own attorney slept through much of the murder trial — citing “consistent unconsciousness of his counsel.” The defendant later pleaded guilty and received three life sentences instead of the death penalty.

Sheley had previous appealed his Illinois conviction on the basis of pretrial publicity, which was turned away by the Illinois Supreme Court. He later pleaded guilty to the two Missouri murders, reading a 20-minute statement in which he fell to his knees to apologize for his crimes. Later he sent a letter to a local newspaper, stating that he believed he deserved death and calling himself “a monster indeed.”

Sheley is serving six life sentences for the Illinois murders, plus life sentences for the Missouri murders and 75 years for two counts of armed criminal action.

Elizabeth Donald: 618-239-2507, @BNDedonald