No one disputes that Ryan M. Larson’s name was dragged through the mud.
But who deserves the blame for the sullying is a thornier question, one whose convoluted trip through the legal system landed before the Minnesota Court of Appeals on Wednesday.
For journalists, the stakes are high in the view of media lawyers, who warn that an affirmation of an earlier ruling in the case from Hennepin County District Court Judge Susan Burke could undermine a key defense in defamation law.
That common law principle, the Fair Report Privilege, protects reporters and their employers from defamation claims that arise from accounts of official governmental actions or proceedings.
“If this decision stands, the press can’t do its job,” Steven Wells, a partner at Dorsey & Whitney, told the three judges on the panel, Diane Bratvold, Michelle Larkin and James Florey.
Wells is representing two media outlets — KARE 11 and The St. Cloud Times — that Larson sued for defamation.
His sentiments were echoed in a joint amicus brief from the Star Tribune, the Associated Press, Fox 9, the Minnesota Newspaper Association and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.
“[Burke’s] order should be reversed and this court should clarify that when public officials, acting in their official capacities, discuss a matter of public concern — or when a public entity issues an official statement — the media may fairly and accurately report on these statements without fear of liability,” the amici urged.
The dispute stretches back to a November night in 2012 when Cold Spring police officer Tom Decker was dispatched to perform a late-night welfare check on a supposedly suicidal Larson. Before reaching Larson’s apartment, Decker was killed in a shotgun ambush.
Larson was promptly arrested and booked into the Stearns County Jail, where, according to the jail log, he was held on suspicion of second-degree murder.
In a televised press conference called the next day by the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, the Cold Spring Police Department and the Stearns County Sheriff’s Department, BCA Assistant Superintendent Drew Evans told reporters that Larson had been arrested “in connection” with Decker’s slaying and no other suspects were being sought.
With that, Larson was essentially branded a cop killer. His name and mugshot were everywhere.
“[Decker] 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 reported in its nightly newscast.
“Police say Larson is responsible for the shooting death of Cold Spring-Richmond Police Officer Tom Decker,” declared The St. Cloud Times.
But as it turned out, Larson was the wrong man and, after spending four days in jail, he was released without charges. Not long afterward, investigators linked Decker’s killing to another man, Eric Thomes, who hanged himself before police could make the arrest.
Looking to repair his reputation, Larson sued a raft of TV and radio stations, as well as The St. Cloud Times, over the coverage of his arrest. Along the way, he garnered at least two confidential settlements.
KARE and The St. Cloud Times opted to soldier on, even after losing a key pretrial ruling in which Judge Burke held that the fair report privilege did not extend to what she characterized as the “extra-judicial” statements made by investigators at the news conference.
Following a two-week trial in 2016, a divided jury concluded that the eight statements at issue, while defamatory, were not false. It awarded zero damages to Larson.
In the wake of the trial, Burke issued a 14-page order and memorandum, reversing the jury on the grounds that the contested statements were both defamatory and false as a matter of law.
Burke also reversed herself on one key issue, writing that she erred in barring Larson from bringing claims of defamation-by-implication over three additional statements contained in the news reports.
The order teed up a new trial on the question of negligence: whether the reporters knew, or should have known, that their statements about Larson were false.
In the view of Larson’s attorney, Stephen Fiebiger, the judge “hit the nail on the head” with her finding that “the fair report privilege did not apply beyond the mere fact of arrest before judicial proceedings commenced.”
But at that appeals court, that assertion elicited a skeptical line of questions.
“Law enforcement disclosed the news release and booking records. Evans said Decker was ambushed in the alley and no one else was being looked for. And jail records indicate [Larson] was booked for murder two,” Judge Florey said. “How did the media unfairly report that information that law enforcement gave to them?”
Fiebiger, a solo practitioner from Burnsville, responded that the news account “lacked context.”
“They said investigators said he [Larson] shot and killed officer Decker,” Fiebiger added, pointing out that those precise words were never uttered.
But Wells insisted that was a matter that the jury addressed.
“That was the argument at trial and the jury said we don’t agree,” he said. “The jury said the statements based on police reporting were substantially accurate and therefore not false.”
For his part, Wells urged the appeals court judges to overturn Burke’s order even if they didn’t agree that the Fair Report Privilege applied. That there was no evidence of negligence in the reporting of Larson’s arrest.