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Named murder suspect awarded $1.1 million

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  1. Libel and Privacy
NEWS MEDIA UPDATE   ·   KANSAS   ·   Libel   ·   Oct. 25, 2006 Named murder suspect…

NEWS MEDIA UPDATE   ·   KANSAS   ·   Libel   ·   Oct. 25, 2006

Named murder suspect awarded $1.1 million

  • A Kansas television station lost a jury verdict over a story identifying a man as a suspect in the notorious “BTK” slayings.

Oct. 25, 2006  ·   A jury awarded $1.1 million to Roger Valadez for outrageous conduct and defamation of character by KSN-TV, which identified Valadez as a suspect in the BTK serial murders.

KSN, which mentioned Valadez by name after Wichita, Kan., police arrested him in December 2004, argued in court that the claim was substantiated by police reports. According to news reports, Valadez was held in jail on misdemeanor warrants until he was ruled out as a probable suspect by DNA evidence.

Bernie Rhodes, the lawyer for KSN, said a Wichita police officer testified at the trial that at the time of arrest, Valadez was indeed a suspect.

“There is no question that the information KSN aired was true,” Rhodes said.

Ultimately, Dennis Rader was charged with the BTK murders. “Bind, torture, kill” — or BTK — was the nickname Rader gave himself as he eluded Kansas police for three decades. In June 2005, Rader pleaded guilty to killing 10 people and is currently serving 10 consecutive life sentences in a Kansas prison.

Juror Tammy Munyon told The Wichita Eagle by using Valadez’s name, KSN had stepped over the line. She was also put off by testimony by KSN news director Todd Spessard and felt that he didn’t care about how the public was seen in news reports.

Rhodes said that if jurors allowed the testimony of Spessard to influence their decision negatively against KSN, they didn’t understand the role of the press.

“What Todd Spessard said was that, as a responsible journalist, he could not decide whether or not to broadcast [information] based on whether or not it would upset someone,” Rhodes said.

Rhodes said that under Kansas law, the media is allowed to report on “legitimate matters of public concern” without fear of libel lawsuits as long as there is no malicious intent behind their stories. The law explicitly includes police investigations as matters of public concern.

Proving actual malice — knowledge of falsity or reckless disregard for the truth — is extremely difficult for the plaintiff.

“The judge did not clearly instruct the jury on actual malice,” Rhodes said.

Valadez was awarded $800,000 for outrageous conduct by the television station and $300,000 for defamation.

Rhodes believes KSN will win on appeal.

But if the station does not, Rhodes is concerned that there will be a chilling effect on truthful reporting. He notes that several stations, such as ABC, interrupted scheduled television to report live on the BTK killer updates but did not name the suspect.

“If it’s an officially newsworthy enough to cover live, how can you not use the name of the defendant?” he said.

Rhodes said KSN made the decision to report the full story, including the suspect’s name.

(Valadez v. Emmis Communications, Media Counsel: Bernard Rhodes, Kansas City, Mo.)HS

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