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Investigators search the area near the scene where a Cold Spring police officer Tom Decker was fatally shot Nov. 29, 2012. (AP photo: The St. Cloud Times)
Investigators search the area near the scene where a Cold Spring police officer Tom Decker was fatally shot Nov. 29, 2012. (AP photo: The St. Cloud Times)

KARE, newspaper prevail in defamation trial

Following a two-week trial in Hennepin County District Court, a jury on Monday declined to award damages in a defamation suit against two news organizations over the reporting of the arrest of a since-cleared suspect in the slaying of Cold Spring police officer Tom Decker.

After deliberating for about 10 hours, seven of eight jurors reached a consensus on the verdict, according to Steven Wells, the veteran Dorsey partner who represented KARE-11 and the St. Cloud Times at trial.

While Wells said he has not spoken with the jurors, he speculated that the testimony from the reporters and editors who covered the Decker killing was one key to the defense victory. KARE-11 anchor Julie Nelson, KARE-11 reporters Jon Croman and Jana Shortal, and two reporters from The St. Cloud Times testified in the course of the trial, as did several editors, producers and executives.

“These veteran, highly seasoned reporters took the stand and very clearly and plainly explained what they do and how they do it. I think there were a lot of misconceptions about what reporters do, particularly during a breaking news story,” said Wells, who was assisted at trial by Angela Porter and Emily Mawer.

“In our view, the reporters did their job,” Wells added. “They quickly and accurately reported on what law enforcement said. Any harm that the plaintiff suffered was the result of the public statements from law enforcement, not what we said.”

Stephen Fiebiger, the attorney for plaintiff Ryan Larson, said no decision has been made on whether to appeal but that he and Larson are “exploring post-trial options.”

“We thought we proved the case and we’re disappointed with the result,” he said.

Larson — formerly of Cold Spring and now of Long Prairie — sued multiple news organizations after he was publically identified as a suspect in the 2012 killing of Decker. Decker was shot twice with a shotgun outside a Cold Spring bar while on his way to make a welfare check on Larson, who lived in an apartment above the bar.

Later that night, Larson was arrested and taken to the Stearns County Jail, where he was held for four days but never charged. In a press release and news conference, however, investigators with the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension and the Stearns County Sheriff’s Department named Larson as a suspect.

The BCA later cleared Larson after honing in on a new suspect, Eric Thomes, who committed suicide during a stand-off with police outside his home.

Mark Anfinson, a Minneapolis media lawyer who represented KARE and The St. Cloud Times in the motion fight prior to the trial, praised the jury.

“My hat is off to the jury for seeing the issue so clearly and, of course, the defense team at Dorsey deserves enormous credit,” said Anfinson. “It ain’t easy winning libel trials on behalf of news organizations, as many, many statistical studies show.”

In Anfinson’s view, the case would have ended at the summary judgment stage had not Hennepin County District Court Judge Susan Burke “badly misapplied” the fair report privilege — the common law principle that protects the media from defamation claims arising from an accurate accounts of an official action or proceeding.

In May, Burke ruled that the fair report privilege did not extend to some of the “extra-judicial” statements made by investigators at a news conference and in a written press release following Larson’s arrest. Even if it did, Burke wrote, that fair report privilege is qualified, so a reasonable jury could have awarded damages if the media accounts of the law enforcement officials’ statements were not found substantially accurate.

In making that determination, Anfinson said, “Burke took away, by far, the most important protection that news organizations have against libel claims.”

Prior to trial, Anfinson petitioned for an interlocutory review on the privilege question but was rebuffed by the Minnesota Court of Appeals. Anfinson said KARE and The St. Cloud Times deserved credit for sticking to their principles after the setback and taking the case to trial.

“It’s great to win but there’s a dark side to this story,” Anfinson said. “Judge Burke’s failure to properly apply the privilege resulted in these two new organizations suffering a brutal financial blow in terms of the defense costs. And that’s going to have potential consequences on their whole newsgathering efforts.”

“When that happens, who’s the loser? Yes, the news organizations suffer, but so does the public,” he added.

In addition to the lawsuit against KARE and The St. Cloud Times, Larson sued KSTP-TV, KSTC-TV, and WCCO television and radio over their coverage. Those claims were settled on confidential terms.

Larson also has lawsuits pending against the city of Sauk Rapids and a Sauk Rapids police official, Sgt. Tom Roy, over a social media post from Roy. Writing two days after Larson was released from the Stearns County jail, Roy did not identify Larson by name but asserted that “the person who was arrested” is “far from innocent” and “likely the killer or a participating witness.”

Fieberger, who is representing Larson in that litigation, said no trial dates have been set.

Correction: A previous version of this story misspelled the name of Emily Mawer, an attorney at Dorsey.

About Mike Mosedale

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