Dey: Cameras 'much ado about nothing' at Peoria trial
The murder trial that wrapped up in Peoria County on Monday had it all.
A live husband, a dead wife and an alleged 21-year-old mistress from Lithuania whom the missionary couple had sponsored to come to the United States and attend college.
Because it had all that, the trial also had one more thing — TV cameras in the courtroom to record the event from beginning to end. The murder trial of Nathan Leuthold — a 39-year-old Peoria man and now-former Baptist missionary — is the first downstate trial to be covered in a blanket fashion, even drawing the attention of two network news shows. Jurors deliberated for just 90 minutes before returning with a guilty verdict and wrapping up the six-day melodrama.
Although the trial itself was a big deal — the subject of intense public interest — those present said cameras in the courtroom didn’t seem to make much of an impression on the participants.
It was the first trial held in Peoria County under new media rules, with Circuit Judge Kevin Lyons permitting a television camera to record the trial, a still photographer to take pictures and live blogging.
The subject of considerable speculation before the trial, the new rules continue to demonstrate that in-court cameras don’t appear to have much, if any, impact on the proceedings.
The camera issue “was much ado about nothing,” said Peoria Journal Star court reporter Andy Kravetz, who serves as the media liaison between the judges and news outlets.
The veteran reporter said the case was “at its very core ... a basic trial,” nothing out of the ordinary except the presentation of witnesses, exhibits and arguments were available to a wider audience through television news.
Joseph Tybor, a spokesman for the Illinois Supreme Court who attended a portion of the proceedings, said the cameras “had no bearing on the conduct of the trial.”
“There were no hitches,” he said. “Things went smoothly.”
Forty of Illinois’ 102 counties now permit cameras in the courtroom, the consequence of a 2012 decision by then-Chief Justice Thomas Kilbride to take Illinois where many states have gone before.
With the plan in the experimental phase, a substantial number of counties have yet to embrace this effort, although Tybor said many counties, including Cook, are actively considering how to comply.
It’s a rare case that consumes as much public attention and media resources as the Leuthold case.
But reporter Kravetz acknowledged that it had “all that TV stuff” that makes for courtroom drama.
Authorities alleged that about 1 p.m. on Feb. 14, 2013 — Valentine’s Day — Leuthold faked a break-in at his in-laws’ residence, where he and his wife were living. They asserted that he hid in a closet, waited until his wife, Denise Leuthold, came home and then shot her once in the head.
Both missionaries, the couple had three children. But Peoria County State’s Attorney Jerry Bradley argued that evidence showed Leuthold wanted out of the marriage because he had a mistress, Aina Dobilaite, with whom he was in love.
Both Leuthold and Dobilaite denied any romantic ties. But circumstantial evidence, including text messages and observations by third parties, undermined that claim.
Even though the allegation is lurid, the case was circumstantial.
But — assuming the prosecution theory is correct — the evidence demonstrates once again that even the most carefully prepared plans can easily go awry. Leuthold left a computer and smartphone trail that pointed to guilt.
Authorities also discovered another piece of damning evidence that Leuthold didn’t know about — a two-page letter written by his wife that scorched him for carrying on a romantic relationship with Dobilaite.
An FBI handwriting examiner confirmed that Mrs. Leuthold wrote the letter, which was found in a day planner in the couple’s bedroom.
In it, the victim accused her husband of “running around with a 20-year-old” and no longer having any interest in their marriage.
“I really don’t think there is anything I have done or not done to deserve this. I have never been good enough or done enough for you. ... I know you want me dead. I am not stupid, but I am not that brave.”
Mrs. Leuthold also wrote, “I quit, I will not please you anymore. No more of that game. If I haven’t pleased you in 17 years, then nothing I will do will do it.”
Authorities were called to the scene by Leuthold at 3 p.m. on Feb. 13, an estimated 90 minutes after the fatal shooting. He told police he found evidence of a break-in and called for assistance, remaining outside and uninvolved while police searched the house and found the body. However, he quickly fell under suspicion.
Leuthold, who face a minimum of 45 years in prison, was taken into custody after the jury returned with its verdict. Judge Lyons scheduled a Sept. 10 sentencing hearing.
Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached by email at email@example.com or at 351-5369.