Cameras In Courtrooms Banned For Years After Media Blitz On '62 Estes Trial
By DAYNA WORCHEL Staff writer
The Smith County 7th District courtroom looks much the same now as it did in October 1962, when West Texas millionaire Billie Sol Estes was tried on swindling and theft charges.
The large blocks of wooden paneling on the courtroom walls are still there, and the benches, tables, chairs and judge's bench still look much the same as in 1962, according to the Tyler Courier-Times-- Telegraph archive photos. The only difference now: The prosecution and defense don't share a table anymore the way they did in the photos from the Estes trial a half century ago.
Estes was 37 years old when his trial helped make history as one of the first in the United States to be partially televised when it began Oct. 22, 1962. He was charged with fraudulently selling nonexistent fertilizer tanks and property to farmers in Pecos. The case, which garnered national attention, was transferred to Tyler after efforts to obtain an impartial jury in Pecos failed.
Each of the major networks at the time, -- NBC, CBS, ABC -- installed cameras in a booth in the back of the courtroom.
The media treated Estes like a "movie star" and followed him around like "a king and his traveling court," said the late Smith County District Attorney Weldon Holcomb, who held the position at the time.
Locks of Estes' hair were sold for $5, and the defendant made four or five speeches at area churches and colleges while the trial was in progress, according to articles in the Tyler Morning Telegraph archives.
Smith County 7th District Judge Otis T. Dunagan, who presided over the Estes trial, allowed television and radio stations to broadcast a pre-trial hearing for the defendant in 1962. Dunagan also allowed broadcast of some portions of the trial, according to Tyler Courier-Times--Telegraph archives.
Estes' defense attorneys, Hume Cofer and John Cofer, of Austin, objected to the broadcast, and filed a motion to stop it, which the judge denied. Dunagan did not allow the entire trial to be televised because witnesses scheduled to testify in the trial could watch each other's testimony. At least 12 television cameras filmed the proceedings in the courtroom from a specially constructed booth in the back, according to the archives.
Holcomb asked, "If you allow the reporter to come in with his pencil and a photographer, then what about the man with the TV camera?" Holcomb said Dunagan wanted to give equal access to all media during the Estes trial.
After the Smith County jury convicted Estes of swindling and gave him eight years in prison. The U.S. Supreme Court overturned the conviction 5-4 in 1965 and ordered a new trial. They thought that the television cameras interfered with the defendant receiving a fair trial.
In that ruling, the Supreme Court's majority stated that the press must be allowed to report on the trial court proceedings, but preservation of the courtroom atmosphere necessary to obtain a free trial "must be maintained at all costs."
After the Supreme Court's decision, television cameras were banned from all courtrooms in every state except Colorado for more than 10 years.
Holcomb said he believed the outcome might have been different if someone from Tyler had addressed the court. Estes, meanwhile, was convicted in 1963 on federal charges of mail fraud and conspiracy and sentenced to 15 years in prison, according to the newspaper archives.
In 1967, he returned to Tyler to plead no contest to the 1962 swindling charge and was given a three-year state prison sentence.
He was paroled in 1971 and ordered back to prison in 1979 for parole violations. He was later convicted on additional fraud and conspiracy charges.
Estes is now 87 years old and lives in Granbury.
"I forgot the past -- I won't look back at that time," Estes said in a recent phone interview. "I am doing really well financially now and have a movie being made about my life -- a group of investors out of California is putting it together."
He declined to talk about his memories of his 1962 trial in Tyler.
Looking back, he said, is like being a dog on the railroad tracks. "You might get your tail cut off, but if you turn around to look behind you, you might get your head cut off," he said.
Pamela Estes Padget, 64, daughter of Billie Sol Estes, works as a marriage and family therapist in Granbury. She also works in real estate and opened a gourmet food and gift store there a few years ago.
She has a museum in her store dedicated to her father and she wrote a book called "Billie Sol, King of the Texas Wheeler-Dealers" in 1984.
Mrs. Padget, 14 at the time of the trial, said it was one of the worst things to happen to her family, and that the trial has had a long-reaching effect on them.
"It was like the O.J. trial -- people remembered where they were and what they were doing. We had reporters hanging off of the trees outside of our home in Pecos," she said.
"The families in Tyler were wonderful. They brought us food," Mrs. Padget said. One of them still sends her a Christmas card each year.
Mrs. Padget has four siblings, all of whom live in Texas. Her mother died in 2000, and her dad remarried in 2008. "He said he's outlived all his enemies," Mrs. Padget quoted her father as saying. "The fact that they overturned the verdict was a good thing."