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Federal appeals court rules murdering kidnapper is libel-proof

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    News Media Update         TENTH CIRCUIT         Libel    

Federal appeals court rules murdering kidnapper is libel-proof

  • A convicted murderer and kidnapper’s reputation is so diminished that he may not be libeled regarding his crimes, a federal appeals court ruled.

Dec. 15, 2004 — A notorious convicted murderer and kidnapper may not recover for libel — even when a reporter falsely wrote that he had also been convicted of rape — because his public reputation regarding his crimes is so diminished that he is “libel-proof,” the U.S. Court of Appeals in Denver (10th Cir.) held Dec. 9. The three-judge panel also held that the passage of more than 30 years since the crimes did not repair his reputation.

In December 1969, Thomas P. Lamb kidnapped and murdered Karen Sue Kemmerly of Kansas City, Mo., leaving her naked body in Kansas. A month later he kidnapped Patricia Ann Childs of Overland Park, Kan., holding her for $3,500 ransom, allegedly to pay for a sex-change operation. Lamb was convicted of both crimes in Kansas and sentenced to three consecutive life terms. Childs also alleged that Lamb raped her, but he was not convicted of that offense.

After being apprehended, Lamb violently escaped from custody three times. While awaiting trial in 1970 he and another inmate took four sheriff’s officers captive at gunpoint, locking them in a jail cell and escaping with a fifth hostage. In 1979 he escaped from a Kansas penitentiary and led police on a high-speed chase. In 1987 he escaped from a state hospital, stole a car at knife-point, and led police on another high speed chase. He was recaptured after each incident.

In July 2001 while Lamb was awaiting a parole hearing, Tony Rizzo of The Kansas City (Missouri) Star wrote two articles detailing Lamb’s crimes. In the stories, Rizzo reported that Lamb had been convicted of raping both Kemmerly and Childs, that Lamb was arrested during a shootout that left an officer seriously injured, that Lamb had fooled prison officials into releasing him on parole from a burglary conviction prior to the kidnappings, and that Lamb pursued his victims while dressed as a woman.

When his parole was denied, Lamb — acting as his own lawyer — sued Rizzo for libel claiming that “lies and false information” in the articles caused his parole to be denied. Lamb asserted that he was never charged with rape, that the officer injured in the shootout was shot by another officer and was not seriously injured, that he did not fool anyone into paroling him from the burglary conviction, and that he was fully dressed as a male when he abducted Childs.

Lamb sued in Kansas, but because Rizzo lived in Missouri, the case was transferred to federal court.

In January 2003, the U.S. District Court in Kansas City, Kan., dismissed the suit. Judge J. Thomas Marten wrote: “Given the utter heinousness of the offenses which led to the plaintiff’s three consecutive sentences of life imprisonment, the uncontroverted nature of those offenses, and the widespread notoriety attached to the convictions of the plaintiff as well as his periodic escapes from custody, the plaintiff has not and cannot present an actionable case of libel based upon the purported misstatements contained in Rizzo’s articles.”

Lamb argued that his reputation had been rehabilitated because he had not committed any new offenses in more than 15 years, but Marten rejected that argument as well. “If Lamb has not committed any recent offenses against the public, it is likely due to the fact that he has been isolated from society by the imposition of three consecutive life sentences,” he wrote.

Lamb appealed, and on Dec. 9 a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals affirmed the dismissal. Applying state law, the court held that although the Kansas Supreme Court had not adopted the “libel-proof” doctrine, it had referred to it in a previous decision and probably would adopt it in this case.

Judge Monroe G. McKay wrote that the libel-proof doctrine “essentially holds that when a plaintiff’s reputation is so diminished at the time of publication of the allegedly defamatory material that only nominal damages at most could be awarded because the person’s reputation was not capable of sustaining further harm, the plaintiff is deemed to be libel-proof as a matter of law and is not permitted to burden a defendant with a trial.”

McKay noted that it is a limited, narrow doctrine, but that in Lamb’s case it does apply.

(Lamb v. Rizzo; Media Counsel: Michael J. Abrams, Lathrop & Gage L.C., Kansas City, Mo.) GP

© 2004 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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