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High court justice files libel suit against The New York Times

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  1. Libel and Privacy

    NMU         OHIO         Libel         Oct 27, 2000    

High court justice files libel suit against The New York Times

  • A state Supreme Court justice is suing the newspaper over its statements about his involvement in the 1966 Sam Sheppard murder trial.

A justice on the Supreme Court of Ohio filed a libel lawsuit in Cleveland against The New York Times and its reporter Fox Butterfield over an article written about the justice’s involvement in the prosecution of Sam Sheppard. Justice Francis Sweeney sued the Times and Butterfield in Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court on Oct. 20.

In his complaint, Sweeney contended that an article, which appeared in the newspaper in April, defamed him by suggesting he failed to recuse himself in a recent Ohio court decision involving the Sam Sheppard civil lawsuit. The article implied Sweeney should have stepped down because he participated in Sheppard’s prosecution in 1966. Sweeney denied involvement in the high-profile case, but did serve as a Cuyahoga County assistant prosecutor from 1963 to 1970.

Sam Sheppard, a Cleveland physician, was accused of killing his wife in 1954. Sheppard claimed he and his wife were attacked by a bushy-haired, would-be jewel thief. Sheppard was found guilty, but the verdict was reversed by the U.S. Supreme Court largely because of the media attention surrounding the trial. Sheppard was retried in 1966 and found not guilty.

In 1995, Sheppard’s estate filed a civil action for wrongful imprisonment and sought a court order declaring his innocence. The plaintiffs presented DNA evidence that the Sheppards’ handyman’s blood was found at the crime scene. After a three-month trial earlier this year, a jury found against Sheppard. The Sheppards have appealed.

Cleveland prosecutors later declined to prosecute the handyman, Richard Eberling, for the crime. Eberling, who had been convicted of a separate murder, died in prison in 1998.

When the jury returned its verdict in the civil trial, Butterfield wrote the article that is the subject of the libel case.

In the article, Butterfield questioned why the original prosecutors strove to convict Sheppard despite credible evidence that someone else committed the crime. The Sheppard family speculated, according to the article, that the previous generation of prosecutors pressured the current prosecutors to avoid prosecuting Eberling.

Butterfield wrote, “For example, Francis Sweeney, who was an assistant prosecutor in Dr. Sheppard’s second trial, is now a justice on the Ohio Supreme Court. He voted unsuccessfully last year to block Mr. Sheppard’s lawsuit from going forward in court. Despite his involvement in the earlier case, he declined to recuse himself.”

Sweeney, a member of the state Supreme Court since 1992, presided over an argument from the Sheppard civil suit in 1998.

In his complaint, Sweeney denied pressuring Cleveland prosecutors into opposing the civil litigation filed by Sheppard’s son. Sweeney also rejected the notion that he had even taken part in the 1966 prosecution. The complaint also pointed out that no motion for recusal had been made to the Supreme Court of Ohio over his involvement.

The article was “malicious and deliberate, and damaged [Sweeney]’s reputation for integrity and honesty,” the complaint stated.

Known as “the trial of the century” when it occured, the original murder case spawned a popular television show in the 1960s, a movie starring Harrison Ford in 1993 and a recent television series on CBS.

(Sweeney v. The New York Times; Media Counsel: Adam Liptak, New York, NY) DB

© 2000 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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