Wednesday, December 6, 2023
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Sloppy Rulings Coverage Won’t Leave Media Liable

(CN) - A newspaper did not defame a former Virgin Islands Superior Court judge by misreporting the details of some of his ill-fated rulings, the 3rd Circuit ruled.

Judge Leon Kendall sued the Daily News Publishing Co., which prints the Virgin Islands Daily News, and reporters Joy Blackburn and Joseph Tsidulko for libel over articles that ran between 2004 and 2009.

One article reported how Daniel Castillo murdered a 12-year-old girl while out on bail awarded by Kendall in 2007. Kendall claimed the article defamed him by saying that he released Castillo on his own recognizance, "despite history of violence."

He said that prosecutors at the bail hearing, which was related to an assault charge, had not presented him with evidence of Castillo's violent past. Though Kendall was apprised of Castillo's previous convictions for possession of stolen property, the criminal record presented to him omitted the fact that prosecutors had dropped nine rape charges against Castillo in 2004 in exchange for his plea of guilty to assault with a deadly weapon. Prosecutors told Kendall only that a rape charge had been dismissed.

The second set of articles dealt with Kendall's decision to order weekend house arrest for a man named Ashley Williams who had just been convicted of rape, assault and unwanted sexual contact. Williams had requested the brief reprieve before being remanded into custody so he could get his affairs in order.

Instead of reporting to jail on the following Monday morning, however, Williams holed himself up in his house and threatened to blow himself up during a five-hour standoff with police.

Kendall was upset that the Daily News reported Williams had been left "unsupervised," when in fact he had been under house arrest.

The final article Kendall challenged reported that he had retired in 2009 with "three judicial complaints about him still pending."

He said the District Court for the Virgin Islands had dismissed those complaints, although they were under appeal to the 3rd Circuit at the time the articles ran.

In the liable action, a Virgin Islands jury cleared Tsidulko but ruled in Kendall's favor against the newspaper and Blackburn, awarding him $240,000.

Later, however, the court entered a directed verdict for the defendants and the Virgin Islands Supreme Court affirmed in 2011, finding that Kendall failed to prove that the journalists acted with malice.

A three-judge panel of the Philadelphia-based 3rd Circuit affirmed Friday, noting the difficulty in proving that the Daily News knew its reports would defame Kendall, known as the "communicative-intent element."

Kendall argued that the reporters would have realized the power of their report by covering the protests that followed Castillo's murder of a 12-year-old girl. Blackburn acknowledged at trial that the people who organized these protests believed that Judge Kendall had released Castillo despite his history of violence.

"Once the defendants were aware of what the public understood their statement to mean, he argues, their continued publication of the statement was at least reckless," according to the ruling.

The court found, however, that Kendall failed to present direct evidence suggesting "that the defendants themselves knew of, much less intended, the defamatory meaning."

Likewise there is no evidence to establish that the protesters got their information about Castillo's record from the Daily News.

"Here, the story was covered by several news outlets, which makes it impossible to know whether the protests were caused or informed by the defendants' statements," Judge D. Brooks Smith wrote for the panel.

Kendall also failed to show that the journalists knew they were falsely reporting that Williams had been left "unsupervised," or that there were know "pending" complaints against Kendall at his retirement, according to the ruling.

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