A Hennepin County judge has ordered a new defamation trial for a man who sued KARE-11 and the St. Cloud Times for their reporting in 2012 after he was arrested in connection with the slaying of Cold Spring police officer Thomas Decker.
Ryan Larson was released from jail after a few days without being charged and was exonerated about a month later when the man believed to be the killer, Eric Thomes, killed himself.
A jury ruled last November that while the two news organizations defamed him by describing him as the killer, it still found the reporting was accurate and awarded no damages.
However, Judge Susan N. Burke ruled that eight media statements presented to the jury were both defamatory and false under the law and should be considered as such as part of a retrial of the issues.
Burke also ruled that several other statements included in the news reports should be included in a new defamation trial.
“It is a sea change in how defamation law might be viewed in Minnesota,” said Marshall Tanick, a local attorney who has represented many defendants on both sides of defamation cases.
“First, it imposes on the media the duty to investigate the underlying charges, not just repeat what someone said,” Tanick said. “Secondly, it recognizes that the statements can be false if they suggest he committed the murder even if they don’t explicitly say so, which is known as defamation by implication.”
Burke wrote that the jury’s conclusion that the statements were accurate was incorrect.
In her ruling, she said: “Statements made by law enforcement at a news conference that go beyond the mere fact of arrest or charge are not protected before judicial proceedings commence.”
She said that the “public dissemination of information during the brief period of time before arrestees are brought before a judge does not justify depriving defamed individuals of their constitutional right to a remedy, especially in light of the increased risk of defamatory statements prior to action by a court.”
Tanick said Burke’s conclusion is that it is not enough that media report a statement accurately, but the underlying statement must be true.
A new trial will have to determine whether the two media organizations were negligent in reporting false information, and if they were negligent, then what the damages should be, he said.
Among the media statements that Burke ruled were both defamatory and false was the statement that Larson ambushed Decker and shot him twice, that he could be charged in several days and that police said he was responsible for the shooting of Decker.
After the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension cleared Larson, “there was evidence Mr. Eric Thomes killed Officer Decker,” Burke noted, but Thomes killed himself shortly after law enforcement officers attempted to contact him in connection with the killing.