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Video producer wins appeal in libel case

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From the Fall 2001 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 23.

From the Fall 2001 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 23.

The producer of a video about the killing of two boys did not libel a pair of police officers by stating in the film that the officers were “implicated in” the murders, the U.S. Court of Appeals in St. Louis (8th Cir.) ruled on July 10.

The phrase “implicated in” is “too vague for us to conclude (the officers) had been accused of criminal conduct,” the three-judge panel said in overturning a lower court decision that had found the producer liable for defamation.

In addition, the producer’s reliance on investigations conducted by other people — including the mother of one of the dead boys — was not reckless, according to the opinion written by Judge C. Arlen Beam.

The case centered on “Obstruction of Justice: The Mena Connection,” a film produced and released in May 1996 by Pat Matrisciana. The movie told the story of the “botched investigation” of the deaths of teenagers Kevin Ives and Don Henry, the lawsuit says. The boys were first killed, then their bodies were placed on railroad tracks in Saline County, Ark., where they were run over by a train in August 1987.

A graphic at the end of the video stated, “Suspects implicated in Ives/Henry murders and cover-up,” and listed the names of Jay Campbell and Kirk Lane, both of whom worked for the sheriff’s office in neighboring Pulaski County at the time the boys died. Narration that accompanied the graphic said: “Eyewitnesses have implicated several people in the murders and subsequent cover-up including . . . ”

Matrisciana relied on information obtained through the investigations of Linda Ives, Kevin’s mother; Jean Duffey, a former deputy prosecutor for Saline County and the director of a drug task force; and John Brown, a former investigator for the Saline County Sheriff’s Department.

Campbell and Lane sued Matrisciana and his film companies in federal district court in Arkansas, and a jury found Matrisciana liable for defamation. The Eighth Circuit reversed, ruling that the record did not support the verdict.

The officers did not prove that the statements made in the narrated graphic were false, the court ruled. The vagueness of the phrase “implicated in” was central to the court’s analysis.

“To add to the ambiguity, the video’s statement does not limit its scope to murder or to Campbell and Lane, but also refers to a ‘cover-up’ and implicates other persons,” Beam wrote. “It is unclear whether all the parties were implicated in both the murder and cover-up or whether some were implicated in the murder and others in the cover-up, and so on.”

While the court said the narrator’s reference to eyewitnesses was “troublesome” because it “lends a certain tone of authenticity to the claim,” police records that were open to the public showed that eyewitnesses had implicated the officers in the boys’ deaths either by name or by description.

Because they are public figures, the officers had to prove that Matrisciana acted with actual malice, meaning he had a high degree of awareness of probable falsity of the statement in the video or he entertained serious doubts as to the truth of the statements. The officers failed to meet that standard, the court said. It was not reckless for Matrisciana to rely on investigations that had already been conducted by others or to relinquish editorial control to them, the court ruled.

“Campbell and Lane offered no basis for us to conclude that Matrisciana’s reliance on them amounted to recklessness, other than questioning their lack of experience as journalists,” the ruling says. “We will not, however, limit protection of journalistic endeavors to those pursued by individuals with college degrees in mass communications.” (Campbell v. Citizens for an Honest Government, Inc.) — MD