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Nancy Grace Loses Bid to Toss Defamation Claim

(CN) - A cousin of the Kennedy family can proceed with his claim that Nancy Grace defamed him by falsely claiming his sperm had been found at the scene of the 1975 murder for which he was convicted.

U.S. District Judge Vanessa Bryant in Hartford, Conn., rejected the TV personality's motion to dismiss the defamation lawsuit filed by Michael Skakel in October 2012.

In addition to the TV personality, Skakel also sued Time Warner, Turner Broadcasting System and Tru-TV correspondent Beth Karas.

Skakel was convicted in 2002 of murdering Martha Moxley when they were both 15 and living in Greenwich, Conn. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison.

In a January 2012 segment on "The Nancy Grace Show," Grace interviewed Karas, a former assistant district attorney in New York, about Skakel's case.

Skakel said Grace prefaced the interview by noting that Karas had covered the trial, "reinforcing both the defendants' knowledge and experience with the case."

"After Karas responded to Grace's request for the 'crux' of the facts of the case, Grace asks: 'Isn't it true that the Kennedy cousin apparently was up in a tree masturbating trying to look into her bedroom window?' referring to Martha Moxley's window," according to the lawsuit.

Karas allegedly replied, "Well, his DNA was found yes" and then specified "up in the tree."

Skakel claimed Grace responded: "Beth, I love the way you put it so delicately, 'his DNA,' you know, it was sperm, there I said it, so he places himself there up in a tree masturbating looking down at her window, and whoa she turns up dead within a couple of hours."

"When Grace states 'it was sperm,' Karas utters the words 'correct,' before Grace's statement ... is completed," Skakel claimed.

He said Grace and Karas were "thoroughly familiar with the fact that there was no DNA evidence linking Michael Skakel to the murder of Martha Moxley, and that his DNA was not found anywhere on her body, clothing, in a tree, or elsewhere."

The comments damaged his reputation with the parole board and any future juries hearing his appeals, he argued.

Grace and her co-defendants insisted that any harm to Skakel's reputation was minimal, and that Skakel failed to claim that any of their statements were "substantially false."

Judge Bryant disagreed.

"The plaintiff has met the first element of a prima facie case of defamation because the complaint plainly alleges that Karas's and Grace's statements were not only substantially false, they were literally false," Bryant wrote.

"Despite allegedly knowing that no DNA evidence linked Skakel to Martha Moxley's murder, and despite that Skakel's DNA was allegedly not found anywhere on the victim's body or clothing or at the scene of the crime, Karas and Grace published a statement to a wide audience that the plaintiff's DNA in the form of sperm was found in a tree outside of Martha Moxley's window," Bryant explained. (Emphasis in original.)

She also rejected the defendants' claim that their statements about the DNA evidence weren't defamatory because Skakel was ultimately convicted of Moxley's murder.

The so-called "subsidiary meaning doctrine" does not apply, Bryant said, because Skakel is not a public figure.

Even if he were a public figure, "this court cannot at this juncture conclude that the implication that hard DNA evidence underscored Skakel's murder conviction when no such evidence existed is simply subsidiary to the larger implication that he was, indeed, convicted of murder," Bryant wrote.

Finally, the judge concluded that it was too soon to tell if the alleged harm caused by the comments "is merely incremental such that this case should be dismissed."

A claim for false light invasion of privacy also survived the motion to dismiss.

Skakel is the nephew of former Sen. Robert F. Kennedy's widow, Ethel Kennedy.

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