When ruling in cases of alleged defamation, courts have a number of considerations to keep in mind. Whether or not the alleged defamation has any basis in truth is only the first consideration. Courts must also weigh factors such as whether the plaintiff is considered a public figure or a private citizen. Public figures are generally much more limited when filing a defamation lawsuit. This is because the law assumes that it is in the best interest of the public to be able to freely discuss public events, and such discussion often includes public figures. The law also assumed that, unlike private citizens, public figures have better access to the media, which they can use to address such rumors.
In addition to these considerations, courts must not forget to take into account the circumstances surrounding the defamation. For example, if the plaintiff has already been convicted of murder, is it safe to assume that a defamatory comment could not further damage that person’s reputation? This very question is at issue in a recent defamation lawsuit against Nancy Grace, a television personality. The defendant, Michael Skakel, was sentenced to 20 years to life for allegedly murdering his neighbor, Martha Moxley, when they were both fifteen years old.
In January 2012, Grace had a live broadcast program in which she asserted that Skakel’s DNA had been found in a tree near the victim. Skakel maintains that his DNA was never found at the scene and so he filed his defamation lawsuit against Grace, Beth Karas, a legal commentator who appeared on the program, and the producers of the program, Time Warner and Turner Broadcasting System.
The defendants argue that their statements cannot be considered defamation because they are “substantially true”. They point to statements that Skakel made to acquaintances and investigators that he had climbed a tree by Moxley’s home the night of the murder with the intention of masturbating. However, stating such an intention and claiming that a person’s DNA was found near a murder victim are two different things. According to Stephan Seeger, Skakel’s attorney, such as allegations “is not a minor misstatement”.
Stephan points out that “when you see the letters DNA and put that in any story and hang it around my defendant’s neck, the whole world believes that there is DNA evidence and that is lock, stock and done. … Anyone who is watching that show now forms the belief that the DNA was there”.
A Connecticut Superior judge, concluded that Skakel had ineffective counsel at his trial in 2002, and as a result, he overturned Skakel’s conviction. Another judge then released Skakel on $1.2 million bail, which his family provided. Skakel was released on the assurance that he would be returned to prison if a Connecticut appeals court reinstates the conviction. Far from being unable to do any more harm to Skakel, the defamation has the potential to influence the jurors who hear his case on appeal who will decide whether or not to reinstate his conviction.
Seeger points out that the defendants’ “roadkill theory of reputation” which assumes that their defamation cannot do any more harm to Skakel is false. He states that “Their position fails to acknowledge the Plaintiff’s reputational interest as germane to future parole applications, future trial prospects, and any and all other discretionary benefits that he may, as a matter of law or right, seek in prison or in our Courts.” Continue reading