Amid a string of cases where news outlets have been on the losing side of multimillion dollar lawsuits, the odds seemed stacked against KARE 11 and the St. Cloud Times.
Ryan Larson sued the news outlets for their reporting in 2012 after he was arrested in connection with the murder of Cold Spring police officer Tom Decker. He was released from jail after a few days and exonerated several months later.
But his attorney, Stephen Fiebiger, argued that the reporting went beyond the news of the arrest.
"They invented their own story of Mr. Larson, that he was a cop killer, and they pushed that to the public," he argued in court last week.
After about 10 hours of deliberation, a jury on Monday disagreed. While eight of the statements made by the media defamed Larson — cast him in a negative light — the jury found that the reporting still was accurate. No damages were awarded.
"This is all about the public's right to know," KARE general manager John Remes said after the verdict. "We feel strongly that the public has a right to know information that is vital to keeping a community safe and informed."
The executive editor of the St. Cloud Times, John Bodette, said the ruling upheld a fundamental principle of reporting.
"Journalists should be able to report on the allegations of law enforcement without risking liability," he said.
Fiebiger said he and Larson were puzzled by the jury's decision to find the statements defamatory but accurate.
"He's disappointed," Fiebiger said about his client. "But I guess that's an understatement."
The verdict came as a surprise, given that juries rule against media companies in seven of every 10 defamation cases, said Mark Anfinson, a Minnesota media attorney. In recent months, juries have awarded damages of $140 million against Gawker media, and $6 million against the News & Observer in North Carolina. Another jury ruled against Rolling Stone in a $6 million suit over the magazine's reporting of a University of Virginia rape case.
"The jury [in the Larson case] saw that the statements really were true," said Anfinson, who at one point represented KARE 11 and the St. Cloud Times. "The news organizations did nothing more than convey what law enforcement said at the time."
Reporting of arrest
Following Larson's arrest, the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, in a news release, said that he "was booked into the Stearns County jail on murder charges."
In a video of a news conference that was replayed repeatedly for the jury, police described Decker going to Larson's apartment on a welfare check when he was shot twice. The Stearns County sheriff answered "no" when asked if anyone else was injured or involved. Drew Evans, then assistant superintendent of the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, said, "It's apparent to us that the officer was ambushed at the scene."
The news organizations contend they took that information to piece together their stories.
"[Decker] was the good guy last night going to check on someone who needed help," KARE 11's Jana Shortal reported on the 10 p.m. newscast played for the jury. "That someone was 34-year-old Ryan Larson who investigators say opened fire on officer Tom Decker for no reason anyone can fathom."
The next day, the St. Cloud Times ran a story with the headline "Man faces murder charge."
In his closing arguments, the attorney for KARE 11 and the St. Cloud Times, Steven Wells, said blame for what happened to Larson should be directed at law enforcement.
"They told the world he was the lone suspect," Wells said. "Don't shoot the messenger."
In his closing, Fiebiger countered, "I think it's time that KARE 11 and the St. Cloud Times stop accusing Mr. Larson of shooting anyone, and this is the place to do it."
Larson also sued WCCO and KSTP for their reporting. Both of those lawsuits have been settled.