(AP) A federal judge has dismissed a libel lawsuit brought against The New York Times by Steven Hatfill, who claimed the newspaper falsely insinuated he was responsible for the deadly anthrax attacks in 2001.
U.S. District Judge Claude Hilton also dismissed Hatfill’s lawsuit against Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, who wrote several columns in 2002 on the FBI’s handling of the anthrax investigation.
Hilton ruled that Kristof’s columns did not defame Hatfill, and that they accurately reflected the state of the FBI’s investigation, in which Hatfill was labeled “a person of interest” by Attorney General John Ashcroft.
Hilton’s ruling, issued Wednesday, noted that the primary target of Kristof’s columns was the FBI, for its handling of the investigation. While several columns accused the FBI of failing to investigate Hatfill thoroughly, Kristof also wrote that Hatfill was entitled to a presumption of innocence.
“It is evident that the Op-Ed pieces highlighting the perceived shortcomings of the FBI are not reasonably read as accusing Hatfill of actually being the anthrax mailer,” Hilton wrote.
In most of the five columns cited in the lawsuit, Kristof did not mention Hatfill by name, referring to him only as “Mr. Z.” Only after Hatfill held a news conference in August 2002 did Kristof identify Hatfill.
The October 2001 attacks killed five people and sickened 17. Hatfill is the only publicly identified “person of interest” in the case. He has not been charged.
The judge’s ruling has no effect on a libel suit Hatfill filed in Washington against Ashcroft and other government officials, claiming they named him as a person of interest to deflect attention from their inability to find who was responsible.
Hatfill’s lawyer, Victor Glasberg, said no decision has been made on whether to appeal Hilton’s ruling.
Times spokeswoman Catherine Mathis said the paper is pleased with the ruling, “which upholds an important First Amendment right to comment on an investigation.”