(CN) - It was "grossly inaccurate" for the New Orleans Times-Picayune to report that a defense attorney held in contempt abandoned his client midtrial, an appeals court ruled.
Claiborne Brown was practicing law in Covington, La., when he teamed with Tennessee attorney K. James Phillips to defend Joshua Cumberland on charges of aggravated rape related to two of his stepchildren.
Since Brown had allegedly never handled such a case before, the attorneys agreed that Phillips would supervise Brown, according to the complaint.
Brown says Phillips was unavailable on the first day of trial, and the judge denied his motion for a continuance.
The continuance also would have helped Brown since he had not yet been able to secure the victims' mother as a witness.
Without Phillips' presence on the second day of trial, Brown moved for a mistrial based on his own ineffectiveness. He said was "winging it" and said he was only supposed to do the "legwork" for Phillips.
When Brown refused to proceed with the trial, the judge sent him to jail for contempt. Brown chose to stay in jail rather than continue with the case, so the judge declared a mistrial.
The New Orleans Times-Picayune coverage of the case, by reporter Claire Galofaro, appeared under the headline: "Defense Attorney Deserts Client Midtrial."
Though the article discussed Phillips' failure to appear and Brown's refusal to continue, it did not mention Brown's efforts to obtain a continuance.
Brown sued the newspaper and Galofaro, alleging that the headline was maliciously false and extremely defamatory. The newspaper countered that the headline and article were true.
The trial court in St. Tammany agreed with the newspaper and dismissed the case, but the First Circuit Court of Appeal reversed on Nov. 3, stating that Brown's actions should not have been characterized as a desertion of his client.
Brown's inexperience in rape cases involving juveniles, as well as his attempts to have the trial continued, are recounted in the 10-page opinion, which also mentions that Cumberland faced multiple life sentences if convicted.
"Mindful of his paramount duty to his client, plaintiff refused to participate further in the trial, even knowing that he could be held in contempt of court, jailed and sanctioned for refusing to do so, all of which actually occurred," Judge Jimmy Kuhn wrote for a three-judge panel in Baton Rouge.
As such, Brown acted in his client's best interest, the appellate court found.
"Hence, it was grossly inaccurate and defamatory for the headline to characterize plaintiff's conduct as a desertion of his client," Kuhn wrote.
Finding that Brown would be able to prove falsity, Kuhn remanded the case for further proceedings.