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PAYNE COUNTY: The 1958 Bledsoe murder trial

Image from WKY TV, via Oklahoma Historical Society
A screenshot of Payne County Judge Robert L. Hert and defendant Det. George Bledsoe, shortly before a fainting spell during his 1958 trial.
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STILLWATER, Okla.-- Several documentary films that were released to commemorate the 20th anniversary of O.J Simpson’s acquittal of the charges of murdering his former wife Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman noted that there was “circus like” atmosphere at his  trial in Los Angeles California, and that the presence of television cameras in the courtroom  accounted in part for that atmosphere.

The judge who heard the civil case that had been brought against him by the Brown and Goldman’s family banned the use of any cameras in that proceeding  and the jury found that he was responsible for the deaths of Brown and Goldman and awarded those families  monetary damages against the former professional football player  as a result.

In Oklahoma, television cameras often portray images of  criminal defendants walking to and from  courtrooms, but no cameras of any type are actually allowed in Oklahoma courtrooms.

But apparently there was a time they were allowed, at least in Payne County in the late 1950’s as shown by a short film that was made by WKY Television that was donated to the Oklahoma Historical Society and can now be seen on the Internet.

The film, which is under 10 minutes, was from the murder trial of Cushing Police Detective George Bledsoe in June 1958, who was charged with the murder of two burglars, Ray Abbot and John Yost.

In 1957, the community of Cushing in Payne County had been subject to a string of burglaries, and the Cushing Police Department had received a tip that another burglary was planned  for a downtown drug store in the early morning hours.

It was decided to place a young Det. Bledsoe in that store in the evening of when the crime was supposed to be committed. As predicted, both Abbot and Yost broke into the store and were both shot dead by Bledsoe.

But there had long been rumors in Cushing that there was someone in local law enforcement who had been providing cover for the burglars and was sharing their ill-gotten gain as a result. The authorities began to wonder if Bledsoe had been that individual, and that he chose to kill those men to ensure they could not reveal his involvement in their criminal undertakings.

The film includes a soundtrack that works sporadically, so only some of the proceedings it covers can be heard.

The trial was presided over by Judge Robert Hert, Sr. who was known for his fairness to all of those who appeared before as well as his judicial wisdom.

And while Hert can been observed in the film, his voice is not heard, and his face displays little emotion despite the fact that it is clear that he is in control of the courtroom.

Several different defense witnesses can he heard saying that Bledsoe suffered from occasional blackouts that rendered him incoherent.

His wife, who is said to be a doctor on the writing that explains the film can be heard saying that his blackouts were such that he would on occasion be have to be placed in bed.

A witness who is wearing a coat and tie tells of his knowledge of Bledsoe’s blackouts. While he is not identified, it is possible that he was the police officer’s personal physician, and that testimony may have been offered to explain the criminal defendant’s possible incoherence after the shootings took place.

The Payne County sheriff told from the witness stand that when he interviewed Bledsoe he found him to be in an emotional state, but that he would not respond when the sheriff  said “I know you want to tell me something George, please tell me.”

And while it is not included in the film, written accounts of the trial indicate that the widow of one of the dead men testified that she saw her husband give packets of cash to Bledsoe as his share of the proceeds from the prior burglaries.

The police officer’s defense team included Donald Worthington, who was then a Cushing lawyer and would later go to serve a long and distinguished  career as  the  district judge of Payne and Logan Counties.

The film includes a portion of testimony given by the defendant, and in response to his attorney’s questioning he can be heard denying that he ever took money from either decedent, and that he shot them because they were advancing towards him and that he thought that his life was in danger as a result.

But when a member of the prosecuting team of attorneys, that included the late Dennis Cubbage, who would  later serve the people of Cushing for decades as an esteemed  private attorney,  rose to begin his  cross-examination, Bledsoe had one of his blackouts and the film, which is unfortunately silent at that time, shows him being dragged off the witness stand and out of the courtroom by his attorneys.

The jury, which can be seen entering and leaving the courtroom on several occasions, acquitted him on both charges.

Several years ago, Donald Worthington’s daughter, attorney   Susan Worthington, was appointed to the post of special judge of Logan County, and the elder Worthington attended her swearing in and the reception that followed.

When asked by one of the other attendees at that event  about Bledsoe’s  actual guilt or innocence, he replied by  repeating what he had been told the Christian clergyman who ministered to Bledsoe and his family and was also in attendance, along with many members of his congregation, who can be seen on the film , at every day of his trial. “If George really did this” the cleric told Worthington, “He will not be able to live with himself.”

After his acquittal, George Bledsoe moved to Florida but died there within a year  of the jury’s  verdict. 

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Bill O'Brien

Bill O'Brien is an attorney based in Oklahoma City.

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