Tuesday, August 10, 1999

2 deputies win $598,750 award for defamation


A federal jury awarded more than half a million dollars Monday to two Pulaski County sheriff's lieutenants after finding that a California filmmaker defamed them in a film about the deaths of two Saline County boys in 1987.
    After three hours of deliberation Friday, followed by seven hours Monday, the seven-woman, five-man panel returned a unanimous verdict against Patrick Matrisciana of Hemet, Calif.
    They found that in his 1996 documentary, Obstruction of Justice: the Mena Connection, Matrisciana libeled veteran sheriff's deputies Jay Campbell, 38, and Kirk Lane, 37, in accusing them and four other law enforcement officials of murdering the boys and covering it up.
    The other officials, also named at the end of the film, have not sued.
    Campbell and Lane, through Little Rock attorneys Darren O'Quinn and Jim Rhodes, argued that Matrisciana and his collaborators stated as fact a piece of unfounded gossip spread years earlier by a prosecutor the deputies were investigating. That former prosecutor, Dan Harmon, is now in prison on federal drug and racketeering charges -- as a result of later investigations by other law enforcement officers.
    Matrisciana and his attorney, John Wesley Hall Jr. of Little Rock, argued that the 60-minute film constituted free speech protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
    As producer, Matrisciana said he wasn't even aware that the officers' names were included at the end of the film until after it was made. He said that's because he was hospitalized during the making of the film, after being attacked by a dog, and because he left the content of the film up to Linda Ives of Benton and Jean Duffey of Pasadena, Texas.
    Ives' son, Kevin, 17, was one of the boys who died. Duffey, a former Saline County prosecutor who headed a drug task force, said she fled Arkansas in 1991 because she heard Harmon planned to arrest her on unfounded charges so she couldn't investigate him and that she would be killed in jail.
    Campbell and Lane, narcotics officers at the time of the boys' mysterious deaths, contended that Harmon dragged their names into the case to thwart their investigation of him. They say that being named in the film, which has been distributed nationwide, tarnished their reputations.
    That reputation, Lane said Monday, "is everything, especially in law enforcement."
    Noting the $200,000 in punitive damages that jurors awarded to each of the officers, Campbell said he believes it was intended as a twofold message.
    On the one hand, he said, it means that "even if you're in law enforcement, you don't need to sit back and tolerate anybody saying anything about you." But he said the verdict also makes clear to Matrisciana that "you can't turn your company over to people that have imaginations like Jean Duffey and not be liable ... and then sit back and say, 'it's not my fault.' "
    In addition to the punitive damages, jurors awarded compensatory damages of $109,750 to Campbell and $89,000 to Lane, for a total of $598,750.
    Matrisciana, who is better known for his 1994 film, The Clinton Chronicles, said he saw the "incredible" verdict as an indirect method of punishing him for that earlier film, which was unfavorable to the president -- the state's former governor.
    "In Arkansas, I believe it's almost impossible for me to have a fair trial, but I do believe justice will prevail," Matrisciana said. Noting that he still has a motion pending before the judge to dismiss the case for lack of grounds, he said an appeal will follow if that motion is denied. "We're not going to give up. We're going to fight every inch of the way." Matrisciana said.
    Even if he loses his appeals, Matrisciana said, he cannot pay the verdict.
    "They think I'm such a big, rich Hollywood film producer, but I have six employees. ... We're a little mom and pop operation. ... We don't have the money. I live in a mobile home in the desert," he said. However, he acknowledged that the mobile home is on a large spread of land that he owns.
    He said if he had it to do over again, he still would make the film. But, he conceded with a laugh, "I'm not sure I would put the names in."
    Like Matrisciana, Duffey said after the verdict that "I think the jury had a problem applying the law correctly."
    "I think they understood what the facts are," she said. "I think they might have been concerned because we didn't present the evidence in our film before we named the officers." But, she quickly added, that was "OK, as long as we knew we could back up the accusations."
    The film stated that "eyewitnesses have implicated" the officers.
    But questions were raised during the trial about the reliability of one of those men, who was frequently drunk, as well as whether the other eyewitness even existed.
    Duffey testified that during a conversation with her while he was in prison, a third man had corroborated that the second eyewitness not only existed, but had described seeing the two officers assault the boys. But Rhodes and O'Quinn noted that the third man had been arrested by Campbell and Lane, and thus may have had a motive to lie.
    Kevin Ives and Don Henry, 16, were found dead on railroad tracks in Alexander on Aug. 23, 1987. Though their deaths were initially found to be accidental, caused by a drug-induced sleep, a grand jury eventually overturned that finding and determined the boys were victims of a homicide.
    The film contended that the boys were killed, and then laid on the tracks so the train would run over them and destroy evidence, because they unwittingly witnessed a clandestine aerial drug drop in which law enforcement officers were involved.
    Because Campbell and Lane were considered "public figures," they had a higher burden to meet to prove their case than had they been average citizens.
    First, jurors had to find that the defamatory statements "were published with knowledge that one or more of them were false" or were published with "reckless disregard" for the truth.
    "Recklessness" implies a higher degree of culpability than "negligence," which would have applied had the men not been public figures.
    Second, the "reckless disregard" had to be proven by "clear and convincing evidence" as opposed to the lesser standard of "preponderance of the evidence."
    And because the case was tried in federal court, the verdict had to be unanimous -- which wouldn't have applied in state court.

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