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Reporters Not Liable for Suicide in Sex Abuse Case

(CN) - A news company that reported sexual assault allegations against the apartment manager of a Louisiana school for the blind is not liable for the subsequent suicide of the accused, a state appeals court ruled.

On April 23, 2007, Gina Koons called her mother in Mobile, Ala., to report that she had been sexually assaulted earlier that morning. Koons, a legally blind student at the Louisiana Center for the Blind, identified her attacker as Samuel Johnston Jr.

Johnston, who was also legally blind, worked for the Ruston-based school as an on-campus apartment manager and student mentor.

As police brought Johnston in for questioning, Koons and her mother, Jeanine, contacted a local reporter with KNOE-TV.

Though police did not identify Johnston as Koons' alleged assailant, reporter Mick McDaniel learned the name by interviewing Gina and Jeanine. McDaniel also confirmed Johnston's employment status with the school, which admitted to putting Johnston on leave pending the investigation.

In a report on the 10 p.m. news, McDaniel identified Johnston as the alleged attacker of Koons, whom he described as a 4-foot-5, 20-year-old seen holding "tightly to a stuffed lion."

Gina said she was in her apartment with Johnston and had asked him to help her apply an ice pack to the ankle she had sprained earlier that day.

"So he told me to lay [sic] down in my bed, so he could help put some ice on my ankle," Gina said, according to a transcript of the broadcast reproduced by the court (brackets in original).

"He started rubbing up and down my leg, in between my private area and jabbing his fingers in my private area," she told McDaniel. "And rubbing on my breast area and he put his mouth on my breast area[.] I had teeth marks."

McDaniel concluded the story by noting that police had not filed charges or arrested Johnston, but that the incident was under investigation.

Johnston hanged himself after the story aired. In a March 2008 lawsuit, Johnston's widow and two daughters claimed KNOE-TV's owner, NOE Corp., was liable for defamation and false light invasion of privacy.

A judge in Ouachita disagreed, however, and dismissed the complaint on summary judgment.

The Shreveport-based Second Circuit affirmed on Nov. 23.

"We note that the reporter did not state that the decedent had been arrested or that the allegations against the decedent were true," Judge Felicia Toney Williams wrote for a three-member panel. "Rather he reported, pursuant to a police report, that allegations had been made against the decedent."

"Moreover, plaintiff has submitted no evidence to establish that the allegations made by Gina, and reported by TV-8 news, were not truthful," Williams added. "DNA testing showed that there was 'no male DNA present' in the samples taken from Gina's rape kit. However, Gina never alleged that the decedent had raped her. Rather, Gina reported that the decedent had touched her leg, 'private area,' 'breast area' and had 'jabb[ed] his fingers in [her] private area.'"

Though the U.S. Supreme Court's 1989 decision in The Florida Star v B.J.F. "concluded that imposing damages on the newspaper for publishing the name of a victim constituted a violation of the First Amendment," Williams said the case at hand is materially different.

"Here, the decedent was not the victim of an alleged sexual assault, he was the alleged assailant," the 11-page decision states (emphasis in original). "We have found no existing case law or statutory authority which prohibits the press from publishing the name of an alleged suspect or the facts surrounding an investigation of the commission of a crime."

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