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Third Circuit concludes articles about Virgin Islands judge's bail decisions not libelous

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  1. Libel and Privacy
A retired Virgin Islands Superior Court judge was unable to prove that a reporter had malicious intent when writing articles…

A retired Virgin Islands Superior Court judge was unable to prove that a reporter had malicious intent when writing articles that he believed defamed him, according to a ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals in Philadelphia (3rd Cir.).

The decision on Friday affirms a ruling by the Virgin Islands Supreme Court dismissing Leon Kendall’s defamation claims against the Virgin Islands Daily News and one of its reporters.

Specifically, the appellate court held that the judge failed to prove that the pieces concerning three events which appeared in the paper between November 2006 and February 2009 were published with actual malice – knowledge of or reckless disregard for their falsity.

The court’s decision with respect to one of the articles, in particular, illustrates the increased difficulty of proving defamation in cases hinging on insinuations that arise from published statements rather than the statements themselves.

The article, published in April 2007, details Kendall’s decision to release a man charged with committing a violent act on bail who later murdered a 12-year-old girl. The newspaper did not explicitly state in its report that Kendall released the man on bail while knowing of his violent past, yet Kendall claimed the articles implied he knew of the man’s history.

But the appellate court concluded that Kendall was unable to establish that the newspaper either intended or published the article in reckless disregard of a known defamatory meaning in its report.

“The subjective nature of this inquiry requires that there be some evidence showing, directly or circumstantially, that the defendants themselves understood the potential defamatory meaning of their statement,” Circuit Judge D. Brooks Smith wrote in his March 8 opinion.

“Because Judge Kendall cannot establish that the defendants intended the defamatory meaning or knew of it and were reckless in regard to it, he fails to prove actual malice by clear-and-convincing evidence.”

The appellate court went on to conclude Kendall was unable to establish the actual malice prong needed to sustain his libel claims concerning two other reports published by the paper.

In March 2010, a jury found for Kendall and awarded him $240,000 in damages. That May, however, the court granted the media defendants’ request for a directed verdict, a procedure that allows a trial judge to overrule a jury verdict if the judge concludes there was insufficient evidence presented at trial upon which a reasonable juror could find the way the jury did.

Kendall appealed to the Virgin Islands Supreme Court, the only appellate court in the territory. The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of the paper and reporter.