Thursday, May 24, 2007

Podcast: Lawyers Who Defend Celebrities

This week on the legal-affairs podcast Lawyer2Lawyer, we talk to the lawyers who defend high-profile celebrities in criminal cases. Why is the public so fascinated with stars in legal trouble? What challenges do lawyers face in representing a high-profile client? Can celebrities ever get a fair trial?

Joining cohost J. Craig Williams and me to share their insights and experiences are Tom Mesereau, partner with the Los Angeles firm Mesereau & Yu, who has defended Michael Jackson and Robert Blake, among others, and Jennifer Keller, a Southern California criminal defense attorney who also represented Robert Blake, among other celebrities.

Read more about the program and download or listen to it at this page.

Monday, May 07, 2007

SJC Affirms Libel Verdict Against Boston Herald

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court today affirmed the $2.09 million libel verdict against the Boston Herald and reporter David Wedge in a case brought by Superior Court Judge Ernest B. Murphy. In a decision written by Justice John Greaney, the court said: "We conclude that the verdict, as modified by the trial judge, holding the defendants liable for the calumnies published, is sound in fact and in law, and we now affirm the judgment entered on the jury's verdict."
At issue were a series of articles attacking Murphy as soft on crime. The first article ran under the headline "Murphy's law," with the subhead "Lenient judge frees dangerous criminals." It included the allegation that Murphy had said of a teenage rape victim, "She can't go through life as a victim. She's 14. She got raped. Tell her to get over it."

The SJC found "that there is overwhelming evidence in the record from which to conclude, as the jury did, that the statements were defamatory and false." The court came down particularly hard on Wedge, finding that his testimony at trial was not believable and was impeached by contradictions in his earlier deposition testimony. "It is fair to say that, by the end of Wedge's testimony, his credibility on any material factual point at issue was in tatters," Greaney wrote.

As for the statement about the rape victim, Greaney found that overwhelming evidence indicated that Murphy's actual statements showed compassion and concern, not callousness. "The actual remarks made by the plaintiff in the lobby conference in the rape case … are polar opposites to what Wedge reported and demonstrate that the plaintiff had acted with compassion and prudent regard to assist the victim in restoring her life."

Greaney found that Wedge "deliberately attempted to mislead the jury" and acted with "actual malice" in his reporting of the stories. "There is an abundance of evidence that, taken cumulatively, provides clear and convincing proof that the defendants either knew that the published statements found by the jury to be libelous were untrue, or that they published them in reckless disregard of their probable falsity."

"Despite obvious reasons to doubt the quotation's accuracy, however, and although Wedge knew that there were others -- not connected to the district attorney's office -- who had been present at the robbery case lobby conference at which the statements purportedly were made, Wedge failed to interview anyone other than Crowley," Greaney wrote.

"When substantial doubts have been raised as to the veracity of a reporter's information, the purposeful failure to investigate known witnesses may be proof of actual malice. … The evidence, clearly and convincingly, supports the inference that Wedge included the 'tell her' quotation, which not one percipient witness had confirmed, to convey the impression (false) of callousness. The evidence equally clearly and convincingly supports the determination that Wedge purposely did not seek to interview any of the percipient witnesses who would have contradicted the alleged facts in his article."

Greaney said that "most damaging" to Wedge were the circumstances in which he discarded his notes. Even though Wedge testified that he routinely discarded his notes within days, Greaney found it "highly improbable" that would discard them here, having already been put on notice by a lawyer that Murphy claimed he was misquoted.

"The jury were entitled to draw the negative inference that Wedge discarded his notebook in a deliberate effort to conceal what he knew were inaccuracies in his reporting. This inference, in turn, provides a strong basis for a finding of actual malice."

Greaney concludes: "The record contains sufficient evidence to permit the conclusion that the defendants published the quotation, and other defamatory statements concerning the plaintiff, with knowledge of their falsity or with serious doubts as to their truth."

Thursday, May 03, 2007

NH Court Says Repeat Criminal Not 'Libel Proof'

The New Hampshire Supreme Court has reversed a lower court ruling that a repeat criminal is "libel proof" -- meaning that his reputation was already so bad that false statements in a newspaper could not make it worse. According to an Associated Press report published by the Concord Monitor, state prison inmate Terry Thomas will now be able to proceed with his libel lawsuit against The Telegraph of Nashua and police officers who were quoted in the article. The AP report says:
"The Telegraph had argued Thomas was libel-proof for two reasons: He already had such a lengthy criminal record that even false statements could not damage his reputation further, and any disputed statements in the article would not harm his reputation beyond the true statements in the same article."
But the Supreme Court said the first ground would apply only if the plaintiff was already notorious because of widespread publicity about his crimes, which was not the case with Thomas. "Criminal convictions alone are not enough to justify application of the doctrine," the court said.

The court declined to decide the second question, the AP reports, saying that Thomas had challenged more than half the statements in the article and that, while evidence supported some of them as true, the lower court had not decided whether others were false, statements of opinion or protected by the fair-reporting privilege.

The full text of the opinion is here.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

To Russia to Discuss Media Law

I am thrilled to announce that I will be visiting Russia May 12-19 as part of a five-person delegation to discuss the relationship between the news media and the courts. We will be visiting the Siberian city of Tomsk, some 2,200 miles east of Moscow, where we will meet with Russian judges, lawyers, journalists and law students. Through a series of meetings and presentations, we will share perspectives on libel and defamation law, media access to judges and court proceedings, media coverage of court proceedings and other issues of common interest.

The trip is under the auspices of the Russian American Rule of Law Consortium, an organization that promotes partnerships between legal communities in the United States and Russia. Massachusetts has had such a partnership with Tomsk since 2001.

Details on the trip I am part of can be found here.

Podcast: Colleges and Legal Liability

In the wake of the Virginia Tech shootings, our legal-affairs podcast Lawyer2Lawyer examines the legal liability of higher-education institutions for students who are homicidal or suicidal. Joining my cohost J. Craig Williams and me for this discussion are Anthony J. Sebok, professor at Brooklyn Law School and author of a recent article exploring Virginia Tech's liability, and Robert B. Smith, partner with the Boston firm Nelson, Kinder, Mosseau & Saturley and author of a recent opinion piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education about student suicide and colleges' liability.

Listen to or download the full program at this page.