SPRINGFIELD — The information that may be disclosed about Kirk Zimmerman to the public — including jurors who will consider murder charges against him— was the focus of two hearings Tuesday in state courts in Springfield.
The 59-year-old Bloomington man is accused in the November 2014 shooting death of his former wife, Pam Zimmerman.
The 4th District Appellate Court heard an appeal filed by the McLean County state’s attorney’s office of a ruling by Judge Scott Drazewski that limits witness statements that could be damaging to Zimmerman’s case.
In a separate hearing, the Illinois Supreme Court heard arguments in an appeal filed by The Pantagraph, WGLT and the Illinois Press Association of Drazewski’s decision to seal two pretrial motions that contain information about the suspect.
State appellate prosecutor David Mannchen told the appellate judges that Drazewski erred when he limited the number of statements a jury may hear about the Zimmermans' contentious divorce and comments from a woman who allegedly saw the suspect outside his ex-wife’s office building shorty after police believe she was shot multiple times there on Nov. 3, 2014.
“The full two-year history is clearly relevant to establish his motive at the time of the murder,” Mannchen said, referring to the heated exchanges the Zimmermans had over child support after their 2012 divorce.
The prosecutor complained that Drazewski’s winnowing of what a jury may hear restrains the state from providing a full picture of Zimmerman’s growing sense of anger over not being able to retire at age 55 because of ongoing financial obligations after the divorce.
Defense lawyer John Rogers admitted he was not pleased that some of the potentially damaging remarks about his client were allowed by the judge and disagreed with Mannchen’s assertion that the excluded statements are relevant to the case.
In response to a question from Judge James Knecht about the relevance of the statements, Rogers said such testimony “opens up a divorce trial in the middle of a criminal trial,” and should be avoided.
A ruling in the next several months by the appellate court could put the nearly four-year-old case back on track. Proceedings were halted in January until the evidence issues are resolved.
In the Supreme Court hearing, media lawyer Don Craven argued that documents filed in court cases are presumed open under the First Amendment. Those records include motions related to potential evidence one side or the other wants excluded from the jury, he said.
The December 2016 ruling by Drazewski to seal two defense motions “is a denial of our rights to access a public court record,” Craven told the court.
The state does not intend to introduce the material as evidence and has taken no position of the records issue.
Zimmerman’s lawyer Joe Bante said the barred statements contain material that is “salacious, and inflammable and involved the defendant’s character and conduct.”
In its March 2017 ruling reversing Drazewski’s decision, the appellate court said the right to access pretrial motions “plays a significant positive role in the functioning of the criminal justice process.” The exposure of improper police procedures that render evidence inadmissible is one reason such exposure is important, the judge’s ruled.
In her arguments against release of the information, Illinois Assistant Attorney General Gopi Kashyap challenged the appellate court‘s jurisdiction to consider courts orders sealing order records. She recommended the issue be sent to the Supreme Court’s Rules Committee for consideration.