Friday, February 8, 2008

Dinner with Billie Sol Estes or How the Hidalgo County Courthouse Got Cameras

Being in the news business, once in a while you inadvertently become a part of a headline.

Back in the early 1990s, I covered the Hidalgo County Courthouse for The Monitor in McAllen, Texas At the time, I think there were six state district courts, but the burgeoning border population made Hidalgo County one of the fastest-growing metroplexes in the state (when pooled with neighboring Cameron County) and they added a couple.

I cherry-picked what I wanted to cover, looking for something interesting that would catch the eye of the reader and land me on Page One.

I always wondered why we couldn't bring cameras or recorders into the courts. They were strictly verboten, and not particularly common statewide. I learned that in Florida, there was a successful movement that brought recording devices into the state district courts, and that got me going.

Research revealed the problem. It went back to Billy Sol Estes, the larger-than-life Texas financier whose LBJ-era trial on charges of defrauding Uncle Sam deteriorated into a three-ring circus, flashes everywhere, that sort of thing. It also spawned a hailstorm of other conspiracies, including accusations of corruption and murder that reached into the Johnson White House. See Wikipedia's bio on Billy Sol here:

Although he was sentenced and went to jail, his conviction was overturned on the grounds that he couldn't get a fair trial because of the media circus of the day.

(Incidentally, some 10 years I later got to interview Billy Sol Estes, who was somewhat frail. A friend got him to agree to talk to me. We had steak dinner in Granbury, Texas, where he was working on a plan for a bed-and-breakfast across from the lake. He told the waitress "You know what I want." She brought a massive steak that seemed to have barely been seared on both sides. The resulting two-part story was published in a couple newspapers, the Lake Whitney paper and the Waxahachie Daily Light, where I was an editor. It was so long, of course, that it was divided into two long stories. Perhaps I'll print them here, and my picture of me and Billie Sol.)

Modern technology makes cameras much less intrusive, so I decided to go to bat for the freedom of the press in Hidalgo County -- my personal stand for the U.S. Constitution. See's outline of the Constitution here:

After research, I called my fellow newshounds together to talk about going to the HC board of judges to present the idea of allowing cameras and recording devices in the courthouse. That original group included Channel 4 from Harlingen, KRGV Channel 5 (Rick Diaz), I think maybe Tom Vinger from KURV talk radio (now a DPS spokesman and a reporter from the Edinburg Daily Review, and me representing The Monitor.

To me, one of the reasons to allow cameras etc. was the opposite of the Billy Sol concept - I felt an inmate would be less likely to be judged guilty if the picture in the paper of him didn't have to be an awkward manacled shuffling from the jail van to the courthouse lobby.

We got on the agenda of the meeting of the board of judges. J. Edgar Ruiz, County Judge, presided. They permitted our photographer, Luis Garcia I believe, to take pictures and I have a great one of an irritated Judge Joe B. Evins gesticulating into the camera, his hand a blur. I made the presentation, backed up by my fellow newshounds, and the judges agreed to ...

You didn't think it would be that easy, did you? The judges agreed to appoint a PANEL to discuss it. The Joint Media-Judiciary Committee would include the county judge, a couple district judges and county court-at-law judges, representatives from TV, radio and newspaper (me) and the sheriff's department.

We discussed all the options. A media pool, with one station photographing and recording and then distributing to others, was one way to go; a single source controlled by the sheriff's department was favored by ... the sheriff's department, of course. Just to test the waters, we got a picture taken by the sheriff's recommended camera, which was a Polaroid type as I recall, and I took it to my editor Jack King to see if it would work. He wasn't impressed.

In the end, after a few months of meetings, supported by both the Joint Media-Judiciary Committee and my other fellow newshounds, I presented an option to the board of judges: bona fide, credentialed media could come into the district courtrooms, but could be barred for behavior or other unspecified reasons.

Perhaps mostly because of constitutional guarantees of freedom of the press and perhaps a bit to see themselves in the paper so they'd have a leg up come election time, the judges voted cameras and recording devices in. We had won.

Of course, there were video cameras from Channels 4 and 5 there to mark the day, so we became the lead story on Channel 5 and also featured on Channel 4, as I recall.

I took the first picture to appear in The Monitor of the inside of a courtroom. I took a picture of Luis Garcia taking a picture, and I cheated the shot so as to catch a judge (either Raul Longoria or Juan Partida), out of focus but identifiable, in the background.

And that's how we got cameras in the courtroom in Hidalgo County, and why viewers and readers could see images of subsequent trials of import.

For an update on which states permit cameras in courtrooms, check out this link:

Here's a link to Hidalgo County. Of that original panel, Judge Partida and Judge Mario Ramirez are still holding court.

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