Billie Sol Estes’ notoriety included getting cameras kicked out of courtrooms

Posted Monday, May. 20, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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Pecos wheeler-dealer millionaire Billie Sol Estes had achieved frenzied national notoriety when Time magazine featured him on its May 25 cover in 1962. But it was his trial the following October in a Tyler courtroom that cemented his name in the law books and set Texas back for decades.

Estes, one of Texas’ most legendary scammers, died last week while sleeping in his recliner at his DeCordova home, family members said.

Numerous stories over the years, and even a website headlined “Billie Sol Estes: A Texas Legend” have chronicled how he made millions by his 30s, built connections in Washington, D.C., conducted elaborate swindles, bribed public officials and then got caught, convicted and imprisoned.

But most references to his true-crime-worthy life make only passing reference to Estes v. Texas, the Supreme Court ruling that threw out Estes’ first conviction for swindling. One of Estes’ schemes was selling nonexistent fertilizer tanks to dozens of farmers.

His 1962 trial was moved 500 miles, from Pecos in West Texas to Tyler in the eastern part of the state in search of impartial jurors who hadn’t already made up their minds about the case.

Television was changing the way the public got its news, and Texas was one of only two states at the time that let judges decide whether to allow cameras to air criminal trials. The state district judge in Estes’ case let TV and radio stations, including the major national networks NBC, CBS and ABC, broadcast from a two-day pretrial hearing on whether to let cameras cover the actual trial live. Estes’ lawyers argued against it.

Because that hearing was somewhat disruptive, the judge clamped down for the trial itself. Cameras had to film from a booth built at the back of the courtroom. Only the prosecution’s opening and closing arguments and return of the jury’s verdict could be telecast live. Some proceedings could be filmed without sound and clips used for later news reports. And the defense team’s closing statement couldn’t be videotaped or photographed.

The jury convicted Estes, and he got an eight-year prison sentence, which the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals upheld.

But the U.S. Supreme Court, voting 5-4, reversed. Justice Tom Clark, himself a Dallas native and former U.S. attorney general, wrote the majority opinion, focusing on the pretrial hearing. He said that even though Estes hadn’t shown specifically that the cameras prejudiced the jury against him, having them in the courtroom court “can strip the accused of a fair trial.”

Notwithstanding the importance of public trials, Clark listed a litany of drawbacks from televising court proceedings: Jurors might pay more attention to the cameras than the evidence or be swayed if they go home and see news clips. Witnesses might act differently knowing they’re being filmed. The trial judge might be burdened; worse yet, telecasts could become a political weapon at election time. Close-ups and increased public attention could make the defendant feel harassed or intrude on the attorney-client privilege. The lawyers might attempt to try the case in the court of public opinion.

It took a couple of decades before Texas trial courts gradually started letting cameras videotape high-profile trials again. Now they’re a TV staple — for good and for ill.

Estes, meanwhile, was convicted in 1965 of mail fraud and conspiracy to defraud. He was convicted again in 1979 of mail fraud and conspiracy to conceal assets. He served two prison terms.

Even with scads of technical advances, the Supreme Court hasn’t much changed its attitude about broadcasting trials. And the justices are no closer to letting their own hearings be telecast than their predecessors were in Billie Sol Estes’ heyday.

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