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Supreme Court Denies Defamation Lawsuit by Simpson Trial Witness

State justices say the woman missed a legal deadline to pursue the case. Media firms had opposed an earlier panel's decision.

December 23, 2003|Maura Dolan | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — A prosecution witness in the O.J. Simpson double-murder trial who claimed that she was defamed by Los Angeles County officials lost her case Monday in a ruling by the California Supreme Court.

The state high court decided unanimously that Jill Shively, who testified before a grand jury about Simpson's whereabouts on the night of the murders in 1994, cannot proceed with her lawsuit against Los Angeles County and a former boyfriend because she missed a legal deadline.

Monday's decision was a victory for the media, which presented arguments in the case after a lower court suggested that defamation suits should be permitted against the media if filed within one year after a victim learned of the false report. Until that decision, the legal deadlines ran from the date of publication, not the date the victim learned of the error.

In a decision written by Chief Justice Ronald M. George, the state high court said the lower court erred. Shively could have learned of the information as soon as a book containing it was published, George wrote, but she did not file her suit within a year of publication.

"There can be no question that ... the statute of limitations ran from the date the book was first generally distributed to the public, regardless of the date on which plaintiff actually learned of the existence of the book and read its contents," George wrote in Shively vs. Los Angeles, SO94467.

To rule otherwise would be to adopt "a rule subjecting publishers and authors to potential liability during the entire period in which a single copy of the book or newspaper might exist and fall into the hands of the subject of the defamatory remark," George wrote.

Shively had told prosecutors that she saw an enraged man resembling Simpson driving erratically in Brentwood on the night that Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Lyle Goldman were murdered. She received $5,000 from the television show "Hard Copy" for her story.

In her lawsuit, Shively alleged that Brian Patrick Clarke, a former boyfriend, falsely told Deputy Dist. Atty. Peter Bozanich in 1994 that she could not be trusted because she was on probation for a felony. Shively said Bozanich then relayed the information to Joseph Bosco, who wrote a book about the case and described her as a "felony probationer."

The book claimed Shively had been dropped as a witness because of her background, not because she had sold an interview to "Hard Copy," as had been previously reported. Shively said she has never been arrested.

"She lost her job," said her lawyer, Gregory Hill. "She had people, her mailman, coming up to her and saying, 'Geez, I read this about you....' She felt humiliated."

Hill said Shively, a paralegal, became "somewhat reclusive" because of her embarrassment.

Shively had initially named the book author and publisher in her lawsuit, but later dropped them from the case.

"In reading the Supreme Court opinion," Hill said, "it is really very concerned about the effect on the media, which is sad because they had already been dropped" from the suit.

A Court of Appeal permitted Shively to proceed with her suit against Clarke and the district attorney's office on the theory that the slander had been made privately, and she had no way of knowing about it until she read the book. A footnote in that ruling alarmed media outlets across the country by suggesting that victims also should be able to sue the media in California within a year of learning of a defamation, regardless of when it was published.

"We wanted to make sure that the error in the Court of Appeal decision was immediately rectified," said Al Wickers, a lawyer who represented the media in the case, "and that is what the California Supreme Court has done."

Among the media that joined the case were the Los Angeles Times, Copley Press Inc., ABC, CNN, NBC and Time Inc.

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