You would think reports about the demise of a larger-than-life swindling genius would tout that he would forever be known for the con man that he was. But the name of high-flying Texas scammer Billie Sol Estes, whose nefarious schemes made him a millionaire before he turned 40, will go down in the annals of law not for what he did–and for which he served more than one prison sentence–but for the fate of his first trial as a result of courtroom camera coverage and the widespread, long-term effects of the related U.S. Supreme Court ruling.
Billie Sol Estes’ notoriety included getting cameras kicked out of courtrooms
Estes’ 1962 trial is one of the few, if not the only one, to have been overturned because of news media camera coverage. Associate Justice Tom Clark, who was from Texas, writing for the majority in the 5-4 decision said jurors, witnesses, defendant and judge are all affected by the presence of cameras.
Billie Sol Estes, Petitioner, v. State of Texas
Texas, then a leader in allowing courtroom-camera coverage, reversed that standing, thanks to that case and ruling, just as media coverage of another trial 33 years later slammed courtroom doors — and insured that already closed doors stayed shut tight — to cameras, not just in the state, California, where that trial, The People vs. O.J. Simpson, was held, but in other states across the U.S. and in other countries around the world.
Just as Texas has crept back out of its bunker with courtroom-camera coverage becoming much more the norm in that state, so, too, are courts in other states and other countries becoming more accepting of camera coverage.
The secret, as I pointed out in Anatomy of a Trial: Public Loss, Lessons Learned from The People vs. O.J. Simpson, isn’t the unfettered, unrestricted cameras in courtrooms, it’s the courts and media working cooperatively to enable to the court and parties to proceedings to conduct their business without distraction or intrusion by the news media and for the media to be able to inform the public using the tools of their trade.