Absence of Malice

WCCO-TV prevails in a potentially disastrous defamation trial

On April 4, 1994 media attorney Paul Hannah was at home watching the evening news on WCCO-TV (Channel 4), the station he'd represented between 1980 and 1992. Suddenly, as Hannah recalls it, his "jaw hit the floor": In a segment of "Dimension"--a part of the broadcast reserved for "long form" stories--investigative journalist Tom Gasparoli was in the midst of reporting that Anoka County resident Terri Stokes was the sole suspect in the grisly murder of her husband. There was no physical evidence tying her to the point-blank, lethal shotgun blast that had killed Dennis Stokes on October 30, 1993, as he slept in the couple's suburban bedroom, and no witnesses. She even had an alibi. But Dennis Stokes's co-workers at 3M believed the police were moving too slowly in solving the case, so they called Gasparoli and he made inquiries. He learned she'd been having an affair. At the time of the shooting, the couple was financially strapped, and Terri Stokes blamed her husband for the debt. Even her own brother believed she may have been involved. What ultimately fueled Gasparoli's report, though--what made it so damning--were the musings of Anoka County investigator Tom Johnson, who, despite a lack of concrete proof, believed he had a killer--and said so.

Johnson: "I think this was a well-planned-out, methodical execution of Dennis Stokes."

Gasparoli: "By his wife?"

Mary Fallon

Johnson: "I believe so."

Gasparoli: "A person is innocent until proven guilty."

Johnson: "That's true."

Gasparoli: "Do you have any doubts about the direction you are going?"

Johnson: "No, she's the only suspect."

"I was really surprised that Tom Johnson was allowed to say all he was allowed to say," Hannah recalls now, noting that Terri Stokes was never charged in the case. "Stories like these are risky because once you've published the speculation from a public official without backing, then you have to go around and balance your story. That's very difficult to do."

Last Tuesday, August 17, Hannah's jaw dropped again. After sitting through a five-week defamation trial and nearly three grueling weeks of deliberation, a federal civil jury in Minneapolis found that the defendants--WCCO, its owner CBS Inc., Tom Johnson, and Anoka County--did indeed defame plaintiff Terri Stokes in Gasparoli's 1994 "Dimension" report. But they also concluded that neither the detective nor the TV station intended to air a falsehood, nor had they exhibited a reckless disregard for the truth. In lay terms, the jury didn't think Stokes killed her husband, but they also found no malice on the part of the defendants. Stokes would return to her new home in Idaho without a dime in damages.

"What worried me was that the jury would be sitting in the jury box, seeing this story from five or six years ago about a homicide, and, lo and behold, the woman Tom Johnson thought did it would be sitting there in a business suit, walking in and out of the courtroom--no shackles, no handcuffs," says Hannah, who attended the trial as a spectator. "And they'd be thinking, 'It's been six years, and [investigators] still couldn't prove anything. How could a detective say something like that? Maybe he is obsessed. What was WCCO doing giving this guy airtime?' But this jury got it: They didn't punish the messenger."

From day one the civil proceeding garnered a fair amount of attention, combining, as it did, the minutiae of media law with the drama of a high-profile murder trial. In November 1998, months before a jury was to be picked, U.S. District Court Judge David Doty had rejected the defendants' motion for summary judgment by issuing a scathing 41-page opinion that quickened the heart rates of media attorneys nationwide. More often than not, defamation claims are settled in the summary judgment stage; either the judge throws out the case altogether or narrows its focus, encouraging both parties to reach a settlement in lieu of an expensive trial. But Doty did neither. And Stokes's attorney Joe Friedberg no doubt began to salivate.

Not only had the judge refused to grant a summary judgment--Doty concluded that there were questions of fact only a jury could rightfully answer--but he strongly opined there was ample evidence that WCCO (a deep-pocketed news organization) exhibited a negligence in its story that bordered on malice. Yes, at the end of Gasparoli's story the reporter had noted that no murder weapon or physical evidence tying Terri Stokes to the scene had been recovered, and no witness had come forward. But that caveat, Doty believed, didn't do enough to balance out the incriminating words of a self-assured detective. "In fact, as the court has already discussed, the broadcast's one-sidedness goes beyond merely favoring one party's version of events over another," Doty wrote. "Through the use of ambush tactics and distorting visual and editorial techniques, [the media] actively contributed to the impression that Stokes committed the crime."

The degree of vitriol in Doty's ruling wasn't lost on Hannah: "I'm not sure what got him all honked off. That's not Judge Doty. I've never seen him get that blistering."

Mark Anfinson, a local media attorney whose client list includes City Pages, agrees that Doty's words sizzled. Still, to his mind, the judge's interpretation of current law was a stretch: Doty had reasoned that the reporter's failure to check, check, and check again the factual basis of Johnson's statements regarding Terri Stokes amounted to "actual malice," which, in a defamation case such as this, occurs when someone knowingly lies about another person or purposely avoids the truth.

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