CHICAGO — If a judge falls asleep during a murder trial, should the defendant automatically get a new trial?
A divided Illinois Appellate Court panel recently said no; so long as the judge was not dozing through crucial evidence or motions, an inadvertent nap is harmless. “We find that a judge falling asleep during a trial does not constitute … reversible error,” Judge Daniel Schmidt wrote in the majority opinion.
The decision builds on more than a century of Illinois bench nap law dating to a five-minute judicial snooze in 1899. But some critics say the latest ruling should come as a wake-up call for the standard to change.
“Of course it should be automatic reversal if the judge falls asleep,” said longtime criminal defense attorney Steve Greenberg. “It sends an awful message to the jurors that whatever is going on is just not important.”
The appellate decision is tied to the case of spree killer Nicholas Sheley, who was on trial for four murders in Judge Jeffrey O’Connor’s western Illinois courtroom in 2014 when the lights were dimmed so the jury could watch security camera footage on a monitor. When the presentation ended, an assistant attorney general asked that the lights be turned back on, according to the ruling. The judge didn’t reply.
“Judge?” the defense attorney asked, according to a transcript cited in the ruling. “Judge O’Connor?”
“Judge could we get the lights back on?” the assistant attorney general asked, approaching the bench.
“Hmm,” O’Connor replied, according to a transcript. A clerk allegedly poked him awake. When it was suggested now was a good time to break for lunch, the judge agreed. “Excellent time,” he said.
A Whiteside County, Ill., jury later convicted Sheley of the slayings, part of a 2008 rampage in Illinois and Missouri that took the lives of six people. He is set to stand trial next year for the Missouri slayings. Sheley, now serving a life sentence, had sought a new trial based on the judge’s nap. In fact, the defense team said the judge repeatedly fell asleep during the murder trial.
But at the time the judge, O’Connor, denied both the request for a new trial as well as allegations that he had fallen asleep multiple times, saying only one instance had been documented and that even then he had heard the evidence.
“If I was not looking at the video, that does not mean that I was not…