Saturday, May 24, 2003

Jury: Times libeled justice

By M.R. Kropko
The Associated Press

CLEVELAND - A federal jury ruled Friday that The New York Times and one of its reporters libeled an Ohio Supreme Court justice, but said it was done without malicious intent and refused to award damages.

Justice Francis E. Sweeney was seeking $15 million.

Sweeney accused the newspaper and reporter Fox Butterfield of libeling him in an article published April 13, 2000, that incorrectly connected him to the prosecution of the second trial of Dr. Sam Sheppard in 1966.

The article also accused Sweeney of pressuring prosecutors to oppose a civil action led by Sheppard's son, who was trying to have his father declared innocent.

U.S. District Judge Donald Nugent said the jury found the disputed article was "not substantially true," but that neither it nor the reporter acted with malice. The Times published a correction concerning Sweeney shortly after learning of the reporting error.

The verdict "reflects that the jury recognized that (Butterfield) is a decent man who made an honest mistake and he was not out to harm Justice Sweeney or defame him in any way," said James Wooley, an attorney who represented Butterfield and The Times.

Butterfield, who testified during the trial, declined to comment.

Sweeney referred questions to attorney Don Iler, who said he has not decided if he will appeal.

Iler said he was concerned the jury twice asked the judge questions on the issue of malice.

"I feel that this jury did not understand about how to define actual malice for a public figure," Iler said.

Sweeney's lawyers say Butterfield should have known the justice was an assistant prosecutor in Cuyahoga County in the 1960s assigned to juvenile cases and had no role in the retrial of the famous murder case.

Sheppard's son, Sam Reese Sheppard, filed a lawsuit to have a court declare his father innocent, which would have qualified the Sheppard estate to make a claim against the state of Ohio.

The Times story noted Sweeney would not withdraw from the case and had voted in the 4-3 minority when the Ohio Supreme Court decided against blocking the Sheppard civil lawsuit. Sweeney's lawyers say the justice was not aware of any request to withdraw from the case.

To win the lawsuit, Iler had to prove Butterfield's article involved malice and Sweeney's reputation or judicial career had been damaged.

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