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Cold Spring Police Chief Bill Jones, right, and Stearns County Sheriff John Sanner answer questions at a news conference at Cold Spring City Hall on Friday Nov. 30, 2012, the day after Officer Tom Decker was shot and killed. The man named as a suspect that day but later cleared has won the right to a new trial on defamation claims against two media organizations. (AP file photo: The St. Cloud Times)
Cold Spring Police Chief Bill Jones, right, and Stearns County Sheriff John Sanner answer questions at a news conference at Cold Spring City Hall on Friday Nov. 30, 2012, the day after Officer Tom Decker was shot and killed. The man named as a suspect that day but later cleared has won the right to a new trial on defamation claims against two media organizations. (AP file photo: The St. Cloud Times)

Judge orders new defamation trial for man cleared of killing cop

A man who was publicly identified by investigators as a suspect in the 2012 slaying of a Cold Spring police officer only to be cleared later should get a new trial on defamation claims against two media organizations that reported on his arrest, a judge ruled Tuesday.

After a two-week trial in Hennepin County last November, a divided jury concluded that the eight statements at issue, while defamatory, were not false. Consequently, it awarded no damages to the plaintiff, Ryan Larson of St. Joseph.

The verdict appeared to vindicate the willingness of the two defendants, KARE-11 and The St. Cloud Times, to roll the dice and take the case to trial, as other media organizations sued by Larson — including WCCO and KSTP — opted for confidential settlements.

But the prudence of that gamble is now in doubt, thanks to a post-trial order from Hennepin County District Court Judge Susan Burke. In a 14-page order and memorandum, Burke reversed the jury and ruled that, as a matter of law, all eight contested statements were both defamatory and false.

Burke also reversed herself on a key issue, saying she was wrong to bar Larson from bringing claims of defamation-by-implication claims over three additional statements contained in the news reports.

The judge’s order tees up a new trial on the question of negligence: whether the reporters knew, or should have known, that their statements about Larson were false.

Prior to the first trial, Burke prohibited the defendants from invoking the “Fair and Accurate Report Privilege.” The privilege is designed to protect journalists from lawsuits when they accurately report on statements — even clearly defamatory ones — made by government officials in the course of official acts or proceedings.

At a news conference following Larson’s arrest, law enforcement officials publicly identified him as a suspect in the slaying of Officer Tom Decker. But Burke ruled that statements at such press conferences “that go beyond the mere fact of arrest or charge are not protected [by the fair report privilege] before judicial proceedings commence.”

“The need for public dissemination of information during the brief period of time before arrestees are brought before a judge does not justify depriving defamed individuals of their constitutional right to a remedy, especially in light of the increased risk of defamatory statements prior to court action,” Burke opined.

Steve Fiebiger, Larson’s attorney, said he and his client were pleased by the order.

“It is unusual to have a motion for a new trial and judgement as a matter of law granted. But we think the judge made the right decision,” said Fiebiger, principal at Stephen C. Fiebiger Law Office in Burnsville. “The controlling piece here is that there is no evidence that Mr. Larson killed Officer Decker. That’s what this case is really all about.”

Steven Wells, the Dorsey & Whitney partner who served as lead trial counsel for the defendants, declined to comment on Burke’s order, saying only that he was reviewing it and would decide on next steps in a few days.

Mark Anfinson, a Minneapolis media lawyer who handled parts of the pretrial motion practice for the defense, was considerably more forthcoming. Anfinson said he was flabbergasted by Burke’s decision, which he described as “stunning” and “bizarre.”

“To reverse a jury’s finding of truth in a libel case is really troubling,” Anfinson said. “But the deeper issue is the judge’s failure to recognize that fair report privilege applies here. It’s just so clear that this is a fair report case.”

Raleigh Hannah Levine, a professor at Mitchell Hamline School of Law, agreed with Anfinson’s view that Burke erred in her interpretation of the fair report privilege.

“I don’t understand why an official press conference, held by the police, would be exempt from the scope of that privilege,” said Levine. “When the police called the press conference, it seems to me that has the stamp — the imprimatur — of the police department. To analogize that to offhand remarks or overheard gossip, really misunderstands the purpose of the [fair report] privilege.”

Will Burke’s ruling survive the inevitable appeal?

“To paraphrase James Comey, Lordy, I sure hope not,” said Levine. “I think it’s a dangerous and wrong narrowing of the scope of the privilege.”

John Borger, a partner at Faegre Baker Daniels who specializes in First Amendment law, said that, even if Burke’s ruling on fair report privilege is upheld, Larson faces a big hurdle because he still must prove negligence on the part of the news organizations.

“Across the country, a significant number of courts have held that when a reporter relies on a police statement — even if it’s not within the four corners of the fair report privilege — it really does not rise to the level of negligence,” Borger said.

Statements at issue

Police say that man – identified as 34-year old Ryan Larson – ambushed Officer Decker and shot him twice, killing him. (KARE)

Rosella holds no ill-will against the man accused of killing her son. (KARE)

Ryan Larson, the man accused of killing Officer Decker, could be charged as early as Monday. (KARE)

Investigators say 34-year old Ryan Larson ambushed the officer, shooting him twice. Larson is in custody. (KARE)

He was a good guy last night going to check on someone who needed help. That someone was 34-year old Ryan Larson who investigators say opened fire on Officer Tom Decker for no reason anyone can fathom. (KARE)

Investigators believe he fired two shots into Cold Spring police officer Tom Decker, causing his death. (KARE)

Man faces Murder Charge (St. Cloud Times)

Police say Larson is responsible for the shooting death of Cold Spring-Richmond Police Officer Tom Decker (St. Cloud Times)

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