Amazing Randi is target of libel suit

May 23, 1993|By Norris P. West | Norris P. West,Staff Writer

Many Americans became familiar with "the Amazing Randi" through his 30-odd appearances on the "Tonight" show, where he used his magic act to debunk faith healers and those who believe in supernatural phenomena.

For the next week, James Randi will be appearing in U.S. District Court in Baltimore to defend himself in a libel case brought by a man whom Mr. Randi has accused of child molestation and blackmail.

The civil trial before Judge Marvin J. Garbis began Thursday and is expected to last six days. It is expected to produce arguments in the long-running battle over whether parapsychologists can do such things as bend spoons with their minds or if they are fakes.

But the key issue in the trial is an allegation that Mr. Randi libeled Eldon Byrd, a proponent of paranormal phenomena, when he referred to him as a convicted child molester in a speech and magazine article. Mr. Byrd is a parapsychologist from Fort Washington, who has written articles to prove the existence of paranormal activity. His findings are among the targets of Mr. Randi's debunking campaign. Mr. Byrd filed the libel suit in 1989.

The language in the bitter battle turned ugly when Mr. Randi charged in a 1988 New York speech that Mr. Byrd was known to Washington-area police as the "shopping-market molester." In the speech, played to the jury Thursday, he said that Mr. Byrd used his children and stepchildren to lure other youths to his car.

The magician also said in the speech that Mr. Byrd had sought to "blackmail" him by distributing an altered audiotape of his voice to make it appear that Mr. Randi has molested young boys. A copy of that tape is part of the court record.

Mr. Byrd's lawyer, Richard W. Winelander, said in his opening statement that his client has pleaded guilty in Virginia to child pornography but has never been charged with molestation.

Mr. Winelander said the magician sought to discredit Mr. Byrd after failing to disprove a supernatural metal-bending experiment which Mr. Byrd was involved.

Diane M. Lank, who is representing Mr. Randi, said in her opening statement that the lawsuit was filed only because her client has been so successful in disproving paranormal theories. She said that although her client was wrong in saying that Mr. Byrd was convicted of child molestation, his statements were "substantially true," made in "good faith."

Mr. Byrd escaped charges of molesting his 12-year-old sister-in-law in Fairfax County, Va., she said, by agreeing to plead guilty to a misdemeanor pornography charge.

In an interview out of court, Mr. Byrd's lawyer said the girl involved in the plea bargain was 16, not 12. He added that she and Mr. Byrd were married after she turned 18.

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