Judge, ACU grad delivers message on media civility

Senior Staff Writer,
Abilene Reporter-News
Feb. 22, 2000

Defendants in Judge Ted Poe's courtroom often end up toting signs in public admitting their guilt or waking up each day in a prison cell with the faces of their victims staring at them from a photo.

Those unconventional sentences earned Poe, judge of Houston's 228th State District Court, a spot in the limelight and a few opinions about the media that reported them. Poe, a 1970 graduate of Abilene Christian University, spoke Monday at his alma mater on "Civility in the Media" during the 82nd annual Bible Lectureship.

Poe's talk was part of the Mass Communication Ministry Symposium sponsored by the departments of political science, journalism and mass communication.

Poe started gaining attention in the early 1980s after trying one of his first cases. A Michigan man had come to Houston during the oil boom to make his fortune, leaving behind a wife and seven children.

The man was arrested on drug and weapons violations and ended up in Poe's courtroom where he was sentenced to return home to take care of his family. The next day's newspaper carried a front-page story with the headline, "Gun-toting Yankee banished from Texas."

Poe was flabbergasted. He didn't think the sentence was even noteworthy - certainly not fodder for a front-page article in a Houston newspaper.

The incident taught him something, he said.

"You never know when you're going to be held up to ridicule in the press," he said.

Despite that view, Poe said he believes strongly in a free press and never attempts to manipulate or control the media in his courtroom. In fact, Poe is a strong believer in having cameras in the courtroom, even after many people criticized the live coverage of the O.J. Simpson murder trial.

"I blame the lawyers and maybe the judge for losing control of the trial," not the media, Poe said.

Since his first encounter with the press, Poe said he adopted some guidelines for dealing with the media. He never tries to deceive reporters, he always speaks on the record, he never says "no comment," and most importantly, he doesn't develop friendships with reporters.

But Poe also blamed public officials for much of their image problems.

Dating back at least as far as Pontius Pilate, public figures have wanted to keep up a good public image, he said.

Pilate allowed Jesus to be crucified, even though he doubted his guilt, just because he wanted to look good to the public.

Poe urged the students not to turn away from a career in public service or the media just because the public sometimes scorns those professions. The remedy is for good people to enter those vocations and stick to their principles, he said.

Poe said some of his unusual sentences have been labeled "cruel and unusual" punishment because they embarrass and humiliate the offender. But Poe said that's the point; humiliation works, he said.

He cited a case in which a Houston man, who was working on a master's degree, was convicted of stealing from Kmart. Poe sentenced him to walk around the store for seven days with a sign saying, "I stole from this store - don't steal or this could be you."

The store manager reported that during the week the man marched with his sign, no thefts occurred. And the convicted thief later went on national television praising the sentence and claiming he would never again commit a crime. To this day, he still calls Poe to thank him, the judge said.

One of the highlights of Poe's career came when the Lone Ranger appeared in his courtroom. A few years ago, Clayton Moore, the man who played the Lone Ranger on television and who recently died, was in Houston to benefit a charity.

Moore had spoken at a children's hospital on Christmas Eve and was leaving town when his bags were stolen. A baggage handler at the airport was convicted of taking Moore's bags that contained his legendary six-shooters and costume.

"Some things are just un-American and that's one of them," Poe said.

When Moore appeared in the courtroom in full costume to testify, the defense attorney vehemently objected to the outfit. But it didn't take Poe, a Baby Boomer who grew up watching westerns on TV, long to make a judicial decision.

He recalled those days of yesteryear when many an outlaw tried in vain to take the Lone Ranger's mask away so that other criminals would know who he was.

"I was not about to be the person who went down in history as the man who unmasked the Lone Ranger," Poe said.

Loretta Fulton can be reached at 676-6778 or fultonl@abinews.com.

Copyright ©2000, Abilene Reporter-News / Texnews / E.W. Scripps Publications


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