Witness the key in libel trial

Sides agree report of smear campaign shaped jury's decision

April 16, 2000|By Nancy A. Youssef | Nancy A. Youssef,SUN STAFF

After an Anne Arundel County Circuit Court jury awarded $2.5 million in a libel suit against the Annapolis Capital -- one of the largest such judgments in Maryland -- lawyers for both sides said the case turned on a reporter who testified against her former employer.

An attorney representing the Capital said the newspaper would appeal.

Attorney John R. Greiber Jr., who ran unsuccessfully for state's attorney in Anne Arundel County in 1994, sued the 50,000-circulation daily for an editorial it published Sept. 28, 1997, about then-County Executive John G. Gary Jr.'s criticism of State's Attorney Frank R. Weathersbee.

The editorial, written by Managing Editor Thomas Marquardt, defended Weathersbee, a Democrat, and contended Gary was retaliating against him for his defeat of Greiber, a fellow Republican. The editorial described Greiber as "an unqualified ally to whom Gary continues to feed county legal business."

Attorneys for the two sides disagreed on the interpretation of that phrase, but both said the jury of three men and three women was impressed by testimony from Melinda H. Rice, a former county reporter for the Capital.

She told jurors she decided to resign in October 1997, after working 10 weeks at the paper,because an editor told her to write what she said was an untrue story about Greiber. She refused to write the story, she said.

"This is a case that is going to be very important in libel because we have a whistle-blowing reporter," said Roy L. Mason, who represented Greiber.

Rice's testimony showed that the paper was maliciously trying to defame Greiber, a necessary condition for libel of public figures, Mason said.

"The city editor told her that there was a lawyer in town who was a sleazebag and that the Capital was after him," he said.

Raymond G. Mullady Jr., one of the attorneys for the Capital, said the newspaper plans to appeal.

Rice misunderstood her assignment and her testimony was not germane to the publication of the editorial, he said.

"This was an opinion column," Mullady said. "It is obviously very important that there be freedom of expression, especially when it comes to matters of debate."

Greiber contended that the word "unqualified" suggested to readers that he was not qualified to be a lawyer. He also insisted that Gary did not "feed him" any county business, his attorney said.

Mullady told jurors the phrase referred to Greiber's qualifications to be state's attorney and that it was fair comment about a public figure who had run for elected office.

Greiber "didn't have a case based on what was in the editorial. To say that Melinda was asked to write the story has nothing to do with the editorial. Melinda Rice gave them a sensational sideshow," Mullady said. "We would never ask a reporter to slant a story, and we didn't."

Rice, reached in Dallas, where she works as a free-lance journalist, said yesterday that her assignment was clear.

Marquardt "was the one who gave me the assignment. I quit rather than write that story," said Rice, 32. "I was ordered to do something unethical."

In Maryland, libel cases are typically settled out of court. In 1980, a jury awarded an attorney $400,000 for a statement in a news article in The Evening Sun. In 1961, a former city police sergeant who accused The Sun of libeling him was awarded $43,000.

Sun staff researcher Sarah Gehring contributed to this article.

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