The man arrested then cleared in the November 2012 slaying of Cold Spring police officer Tom Decker will take on two media outlets in court this week, alleging that they defamed him by naming him as the killer.
Ryan Larson, who was 34 when he was arrested in his apartment above the parking lot where Decker was shot and killed, was initially named by authorities as the murder suspect. But he was released from jail four days later and never charged. Police later named another man who killed himself in January 2013 as the likely murderer.
Larson sued KARE 11 and the St. Cloud Times, culminating in a jury trial that begins Monday in Hennepin County that could broadly affect how the media operates across the state.
“Defendants’ reporters did more than report facts from law enforcement,” Larson’s attorney, Stephen Fiebiger, wrote in a legal brief on the case. “They invented their own version of the facts that fit with the story they wanted to broadcast and publish about Larson.”
Both news outlets deny those allegations and say any harm that came to Larson was due to law enforcement arresting him.
In reporting that Larson was arrested on the murder suspicion, the media was operating under the Minnesota fair reporting privilege, said Mark Anfinson, an attorney for both outlets. The privilege allows the media to report on information provided by government agencies, even if that information turns out to later be wrong, Anfinson said.
If KARE 11 and the St. Cloud Times lose the case, “the consequences would be less information about crimes, criminals and law enforcement getting out to the public,” Anfinson said. “If the media aren’t able to [provide information] except on a significantly time-delayed basis, that’s not a problem for the media. That’s a problem for the general public.”
Decker was shot and killed on Nov. 29, 2012. The next day, the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension sent out a news release about Decker’s death and announced that Larson had been arrested and “booked into Stearns County jail on murder charges” that morning.
Law enforcement followed up that day with a news conference, with the Stearns County sheriff announcing that Decker had been killed after responding to a welfare check. He said police were “eventually able to take into custody the subject of the welfare check,” and named Larson, according to court records. When asked if Decker knew Larson, the Stearns County sheriff replied, “I don’t believe so.”
Larson says KARE 11 made several defamatory statements in its news reports that night. Among those, when a KARE anchor reported: “[Decker] was the good guy last night going to check on someone who needed help. That someone was 34-year-old Ryan Larson who investigators say opened fire on officer Tom Decker for no reason anyone can fathom.”
Larson also claims that a story published in the St. Cloud Times the next day headlined “Man faces murder charge” was also defamatory. In the story, the Times wrote, “Police say Larson is responsible for the shooting death.”
In a St. Cloud Times story after Larson had been released from jail, the Times quoted a resident saying about Larson, “This isn’t over.”
Larson argues that the reporting falsely implicated him as the killer and is seeking at least $200,000 in damages against the media companies’ owner, Gannett. (KARE 11 is now owned by Tegna, which spun off from Gannett.) Larson also sued KSTP. Court records show that case was settled.
According to a filing in the case, after Larson’s arrest was made public, he dropped out of school, left his job and moved to escape the “embarrassment and humiliation.”