By Paul A. Anthony, Editor in Chief
A university alumnus is in the middle of a national controversy involving television cameras, the sanctity of the jury room and the death penalty.
Judge Ted Poe, class of 1970, of the 228th Texas district court in Houston, ruled Nov. 11 that PBS Frontline could film the jury deliberations in a juvenile murder case where the defendant could be sentenced to death.
The ruling and subsequent appeal by the prosecution in the case has received nationwide news coverage. Texas’ highest court, the Court of Criminal Appeals, stayed the ruling and asked Poe to defend himself, which he did late Monday.
“The camera is not a person, nor is it capable of interacting or conversing with jurors about any subject,” Poe said through his lawyer, Chip Babcock, in a statement to the court.
Chuck Rosenthal, Harris County district attorney, argues the presence of a camera would create a potential for intimidation that could sway a jury’s vote and said it would turn the trial into a “Survivor-style reality television series.”
Cedric Harrison, a 17-year-old, is on trial for killing a man during a June carjacking. He has signed release forms allowing the deliberations to be taped, and jurors have been asked if the presence of a camera would influence their decision. 14 of
The controversy occurs in a state known worldwide for its record numbers of executions annually. Texas is also one of the few states that allow execution of juveniles. Fourteen of 110 jurors have said yes and been dismissed.
Poe’s decision is not surprising, said Dr. Mel Hailey, chair of the Department of Political Science. Hailey and Poe graduated together and have been friends for 36 years.
“He has always been what you would call a maverick judge,” Hailey said. “I think Judge Poe is as creative a judge as we have in Texas.”
Poe has created headlines through his hundreds of creative sentences-which have included forcing a piano teacher to sell his piano after being convicted of molesting a student and making a drunk driver stand outside a bar with a sign reading “I killed two people while driving drunk.”
This latest case, however, is a new form of controversy.
Cameras have filmed jury deliberations before, but never in a case where the defendant could be sentenced to die.
“As 21st century America moves toward a more transparent system of governance, he sounds an alarmist call for a retreat into opacity,” Babcock wrote, referring to Rosenthal’s plea for the appeals court to respect the “sanctity of the jury room.”
Poe declined to comment, saying through a spokeswoman that speaking to the media would not be appropriate until the court rules.
“We’ve got our hands tied until they rule,” Poe’s spokeswoman told the Optimist. She added that “none of the jurors who have been interviewed objected” to the presence of a camera. “He’s doing it for educational purposes, not to put something on the five o’clock news.”
Poe graduated from the university as a political science major and studied law at the University of Houston. He was appointed as 228th district court judge in 1981 and has been re-elected to that position six times, including last month.
“Ted is doing exactly what he wanted to do all through school,” Hailey said. “He is a remarkable individual.”