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 dollars 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, while observers debated the potential impact of the decision on journalists and private citizens.

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.

`Whistle-blowing reporter'

"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. Two witnesses testified that Greiber lost $1 million in business after the editorial ran.

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.

Freedom of expression

"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.

Gene Roberts, a University of Maryland journalism professor and a former managing editor at the The New York Times and executive editor at the Philadelphia Inquirer, said that while he did not follow the Annapolis case, such judgments are often overturned on appeal. The size of the award reflects a growing trend of juries awarding large amounts in libel cases, he said.

Resources

"I think juries sometimes misunderstand malice," Roberts said. "Some juries may regard this as malice, but this is not what the courts say. It is the kind of case that some years ago I think would have been tossed."

Roberts said the case is important to private citizens, because newspapers have resources most private citizens do not -- such as libel insurance and the money to file an appeal.

"A private citizen, even if they won an appeal, might go bankrupt," Roberts said. "The result is it makes people less reluctant to speak out about things they should be able to speak out about."

Sun staff researcher Sarah Gehring contributed to this article.

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