(AP) The Chicago Tribune did not libel a former suburban prosecutor who accused the newspaper of knowingly publishing an error in a 1999 story as part of a “witch hunt” against him, a jury found Friday.
Former DuPage County Assistant State’s Attorney Thomas Knight had represented himself in his case against the Tribune, whose attorney characterized the error as an innocent mistake that did not damage Knight’s reputation.
“I’m very relieved,” said Ann Marie Lipinski, the Tribune’s editor. “This was important journalism and it was important to defend it.”
Because he is a public figure, Knight had to prove not only that the Tribune’s story was false, but also that the paper acted with “actual malice,” or that defamatory statements were published with reckless disregard for the truth.
The jury took less than a day to come to a verdict.
Knight said he was considering whether to appeal.
“I’m obviously disappointed in the result, but I accept the system and that includes the jury verdict,” he said. “I have no regrets about this case though. It had to be pressed.”
In his closing arguments Thursday, Knight argued that the story “went to hundreds of thousands of people … I’m going to live with it for the rest of my life.”
The libel case focused on 29 words from a 4,000-word story Jan. 12, 1999, part of a five-part series titled “Trial and Error: How Prosecutors Sacrifice Justice to Win.”
The article was published a short time before Knight, two other DuPage County prosecutors, and four sheriffs deputies were to go to trial on charges they framed a suspect in the 1983 rape and bludgeoning death of a 10-year-old girl. The suspect was twice convicted and spent nearly a decade on death row. He was acquitted in 1995 at his third trial.
Knight, who was the lead prosecutor in the murder case, and the other men also were acquitted.
According to the Tribune report, which cited grand jury transcripts, Knight told shoe-imprint expert John Gorajczyk “to keep his mouth shut” about his conclusion that a boot print on the victim’s front door was not a match with one of the suspects.
Gorajczyk never testified before the grand jury; his statement about what Knight told him regarding the boot imprint was told to the grand jury by a private investigator, according to court documents.
Knight told jurors the use of the phrase “keep his mouth shut” was inaccurate and damaging. Knight told Gorajczyk “not to discuss the matter with anyone,” according to the investigator’s grand jury testimony.
Charles Babcock, lead attorney for the Tribune, said the newspaper made an inadvertent mistake by reporting Gorajczyk was before the grand jury. He told jurors any damage to Knight’s reputation stemmed from media accounts of his indictment — not from a few sentences in the Tribune’s story.
“I’m really proud of this newspaper for the way it conducted itself … standing up for its journalism and its journalists,” Babcock said.
It was the first time in nearly 40 years a libel claim against the Tribune went to trial.