Jury in defamation case finds 2004 newspaper article false

A Lackawanna County jury on Wednesday found a 2004 article that alleged former commissioners Randy Castellani and Joseph Corcoran were uncooperative when they testified before a 2003 grand jury was false.

The verdict against the Scranton Times LP, owner of The Times-Tribune, is a key victory for the men, but it does not end the case.

Because they were public officials at the time, they must also prove the article damaged their reputations and that the newspaper knew the story was false, but printed it anyway or that it acted with reckless disregard for the truth. That decision will be made in the second phase of the trial, which is scheduled to begin Friday.

The jury of six men and six women heard evidence over three days before Senior Lackawanna County Judge Robert Mazzoni. They deliberated for just less than an hour before rendering their verdict.

Thomas Sprague, Castellani’s and Corcoran’s attorney, and Timothy Hinton, one of the newspaper’s attorneys, declined to comment on the verdict, noting the case has not concluded.

Castellani and Corcoran filed suit in 2005 over a Jan. 12, 2004 story written by former reporter Jennifer Henn. The article, which had a headline “Dems Stonewall Grand Jury,” quoted an anonymous source who said the men were “less than candid” and that their conduct so irritated grand jurors investigating the county prison that they wanted to “throw both of them out” of the room.

Castellani, who testified Tuesday, and Corcoran, who testified Wednesday, adamantly denied the allegations. Their testimony was supported by attorney Larry Moran Sr., who represented the men before the grand jury.

The newspaper called only one witness, James Conroy, a former copy editor who wrote the headline for the story. Conroy testified the headline was based on information in the story and he did not do any independent research to verify its content.

Henn did not testify in the first phase of the trial as per a pre-trial agreement between attorneys for the newspaper and former commissioners. Speaking after the verdict, Hinton said he could not comment on why Henn was not called. He said she will testify in the second phase of the trial.

Hinton and his co-counsel, Kevin Abbott,maintained Castellani and Corcoran could not prove the article was false because it reported an opinion regarding their conduct and no one knows what the grand jury members felt. Neither Castellani nor Corcoran ever spoke to them about their impressions and no member of the grand jury testified at the trial.

“It’s possible statements made before the grand jury … are not provable as true or false,” Abbott said in his closing argument. “In that case, the plaintiff has not met their burden.”

Sprague argued the story was constructed to report the statements not as an opinion, but as a statement of fact. Evidence at trial “overwhelmingly” showed the information was false.

“The First Amendment protects the freedom of the press. It does not, however, protect smears and falsehoods,” Sprague said in his closing.

The jury had to determine whether the story, in whole or part, contained false information or if it implied some falsehood. The panel judged the evidence by a legal standard known as “preponderance of the evidence,” which means it had to find that it was “more likely than not” that the story was false.

The same jurors will hear the second phase of the trial. That phase will be judged on a more rigorous standard known as “clear and convincing evidence,” which means a plaintiff must prove it is “substantially more likely than not” that their claims are true.

Attorneys are scheduled to meet with Mazzoni today to discuss multiple disputes over what evidence will be permitted in the second phase of the trial. The case, which is being heard in the federal courthouse in Scranton, will resume at 9 a.m. Friday with opening statements.

Contact the writer: tbesecker@timesshamrock.com; 570-348-9137; @tmbeseckerTT on Twitter

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