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Jury Declines Damages in Libel Lawsuit

May 24, 2003|From Associated Press

CLEVELAND — A federal jury declined to award damages Friday to an Ohio Supreme Court justice in a libel suit against the New York Times and one of its reporters over an article about a lawsuit filed by the son of Dr. Sam Sheppard.

The jury said the paper ran a story that was false and defamatory, but ruled that it did so without malicious intent.

Justice Francis Sweeney was seeking $15 million. He accused the newspaper and Fox Butterfield of libeling him in an article published April 13, 2000.

Sweeney's lawsuit alleges the story defamed him by falsely saying he used his influence in a case he had been involved in earlier as a prosecutor.

The newspaper published a correction concerning Sweeney shortly after learning of the error.

The verdict "reflects that the jury recognized that [Butterfield] is a decent man who made an honest mistake and he was not out to harm Justice Sweeney or defame him in any way," said James Wooley, who represented Butterfield and the Times.

Sheppard was convicted in the July 4, 1954, beating death of his wife. The doctor's conviction was overturned on appeal, and he was acquitted at a retrial in 1966. Sheppard, who died four years later, always maintained his innocence, and his story helped inspire the movie and television series "The Fugitive."

Sheppard's son, Sam Reese Sheppard, filed a suit to have a court declare his father not guilty, which would've qualified the Sheppard estate to make a claim against the state of Ohio.

The Times story noted Sweeney would not recuse himself and had voted in the 4-3 minority when the Ohio Supreme Court decided against blocking the Sheppard civil lawsuit. It said he refused to step aside although he had been an assistant Cuyahoga County prosecutor when Sheppard was tried again in 1966.

Don Iler, Sweeney's attorney, said Butterfield should have known that Sweeney, at the time of Sheppard's criminal retrial in the 1960s, was an assistant prosecutor in charge of juvenile cases and had nothing to do with the Sheppard case.

To win the lawsuit, Iler had to prove that Butterfield's article involved malice and that Sweeney's reputation or judicial career had been damaged.

Butterfield testified last week that he wrote about Sweeney based on information he believed to be correct.

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