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No libel damages in judge's suit against New York Times

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No libel damages in judge’s suit against New York Times

  • A federal jury found that the newspaper, which published a correction following an erroneous report, lacked malicious intent.

May 27, 2003 — The New York Times and one of its reporters did not act with malice in publishing erroneous statements about a state judge and would not be liable for damages for libel, a federal jury in Cleveland found May 23.

Justice Francis Sweeney of the Ohio Supreme Court sued the newspaper and its reporter, Fox Butterfield, in October 2000 over an article written about the judge’s involvement in the high-profile prosecution of Sam Sheppard. Sweeney sought $15 million in damages.

Sweeney said the report, which appeared in the Times in April 2000, defamed him by suggesting he failed to recuse himself in a civil lawsuit brought by Sheppard’s relatives.

The article implied that Sweeney should have stepped down from the civil case because he participated in Sheppard’s prosecution in 1966. Although he was a state assistant prosecutor from 1963 to 1970, Sweeney denied involvement in the Sheppard case.

Sam Sheppard, a Cleveland doctor, was accused of killing his wife in 1954. Sheppard was found guilty, but the verdict was reversed by the U.S. Supreme Court. Sheppard was retried in 1966 and found not guilty. He died four years later.

Sheppard’s story inspired the movie and television series “The Fugitive.”

In 1995, Sheppard’s estate, which has always maintained his innocence, filed a civil action for wrongful imprisonment. Butterfield’s article was written after a jury returned a verdict against Sheppard’s estate.

In the article, Butterfield questioned why the original prosecutors pursued a case against Sheppard when credible evidence suggested that Richard Eberling, the Sheppards’ handyman, had committed the crime. The Sheppard family speculated, according to the article, that the previous prosecutors pressured later prosecutors to avoid prosecuting Eberling.

The Times article used Sweeney as an example of a former prosecutor whose involvement in the prosecution caused him to oppose a finding that Sheppard was innocent.

After learning of the error, the Times published a correction.

The jury in the libel case found that the statements about Sweeney were false and defamatory. Nevertheless, because they were not published with “actual malice” — a constitutional requirement in defamation cases brought by public figures — they could not be the basis of a libel award.

Under the seminal U.S. Supreme Court case New York Times v. Sullivan, a plaintiff who brings suit against a public figure or public official based on speech must prove the statements in question were made with “actual malice” — knowledge of falsity or reckless disregard for the truth of a statement.

(Sweeney v. The New York Times; Media counsel: James Wooley, Baker & Hostetler LLP, Cleveland, Ohio) WT

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© 2003 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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