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Cameras in the courtroom — Part I

Billie Sol Estes was from Texas and a very well known figure in the 1950s and through the mid-1960s.

The reasons included being a multimillionaire businessman, being named one of America’s 10 Outstanding Young Men of 1953 by the Junior Chamber of Commerce, and a friend of Lyndon Johnson.

An additional reason was due to his generally being considered as one of the biggest swindlers and con men in the history of Texas and of the United States.

It turns out that he had accumulated his wealth by defrauding the government, banks, and individuals of tens of millions of dollars by various schemes, which I won’t detail here.

Suffice it to say, his most publicized “scheme” was when he sold millions of dollars of non-existent fertilizer tanks to unsuspecting farmers.

As a result, he was charged with fraud and went on trial in 1962 in a Texas courtroom.

It was widely publicized and extensively covered by the press, radio, and especially television.

In the end, he was convicted and sentenced to eight years in prison.

He appealed and his case eventually made it to the United States Supreme Court.

In 1965, the Court held in Estes v Texas, (a 5 to 4 decision), that his due process rights to a fair trial had been violated by the extensive television broadcasting of the proceedings. The conviction was reversed.

Justice Thomas Clark wrote the court’s majority opinion and found that the television cameras were a distraction to the judge, the jury, the witnesses, and the defendant to the point that they affected the very integrity of the trial and prejudiced the defendant.

He gave numerous examples of this, which included at the beginning of the trial there being at least 12 television and other cameramen taking still and motion pictures and televising the proceedings. There were cables and wires snaked all around the courtroom floor and numerous microphones. It was so crowded that 30 people had to stand in the aisles.

He concluded his opinion by saying advancements in technology could someday bring about a change in the effect of telecasting on the fairness of trials, but that day wasn’t in 1965. Television cameras simply couldn’t be allowed in courtrooms.

Next week - Part II - Things Change.

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