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HomeNewsArchivesV.I. Supreme Court Dismisses Kendall Suit Against Daily News

V.I. Supreme Court Dismisses Kendall Suit Against Daily News

In a landmark decision helping to define freedom of the press in the territory, the V.I. Supreme Court tossed out retired V.I. Superior Court Judge Leon Kendall’s defamation suit against the V.I. Daily News Wednesday, upholding the lower court’s directed verdict in the case.

Judge Kendall filed suit in 2009, claiming the V.I. Daily News Publishing Co., along with reporters Joy Blackburn and Joseph Tsidulko, defamed him. At issue were a series of articles reporting Kendall’s bail decisions on Chris Carty, Daniel Castillo and Ashley Williams, all of whom were involved in violent incidents after being released by Kendall.

Castillo was convicted of murdering a 12-year-old girl after being released on his own recognizance while awaiting trial for aggravated assault. Carty allegedly stabbed a man to death shortly after Kendall released him on bail for allegedly stabbing another man in the eye. And Williams barricaded himself in his home, forcing a five-hour standoff with police after being allowed to go home for a weekend, under house arrest, before beginning his sentence for two rape convictions and one aggravated assault convictions.

Kendall also claimed editorials calling for him to retire and news articles claiming there were judicial misconduct charges against him were defamatory.

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A jury found in favor of Kendall and against the Daily News and Blackburn, but in favor of Tsidulko against Kendall, awarding Kendall $240,000. Two months later, Superior Court Senior Sitting Judge Edgar Ross granted a motion for a directed verdict, saying even in the light most favorable to Kendall, the law and evidence could not support it.

In its ruling finding in favor of the Daily News and Blackburn, the V.I. Supreme Court wrote, "Judge Kendall has failed to present sufficient evidence upon which a reasonable jury could clearly and convincingly find actual malice with respect to any of the publications cited above."

Chief Justice Rhys Hodge, Ive Swan and Designated Justice Adam Christian heard arguments. Christian was designated to replace Justice Maria Cabret, who recused herself.

The court cited several U.S. Supreme Court precedents, including the 1984 Bose Corp v. Consumers Union of United States, which said judges "must independently decide whether the evidence in the record is sufficient to cross the constitutional threshold that bars the entry of any judgment that is not supported by clear and convincing proof of ‘actual malice.’" It also cited Milkovich v. Lorain Journal Co., saying that under the U.S. Constitution, when a media statement involves matters of public concern, the person claiming they are false has the burden of proof, not the outlet making the claim.

The landmark 1964 New York Times v. Sullivan case was also cited, wherein the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the Constitution "prohibits a public official from recovering damages for a defamatory falsehood relating to his official conduct unless he proved that the statement was made with ‘actual malice.’"

Actual malice means the statement was made either with knowledge it was false or with reckless disregard for the truth. "There must be sufficient evidence to permit the conclusion that the defendant in fact entertained serious doubts as to the truth " of the publication.

Kendall also argued the Daily News defamed him by insinuating he released Castillo despite knowing Castillo’s violent past, when the record before him in the court showed a conviction for possession of stolen property and a charge for rape the prosecutor said had been dismissed.

"It is important to note at the outset that none of the articles cited by Judge Kendall directly state that he was aware of the facts surrounding Castillo’s first degree rape charge, which is the information Blackburn relied on in characterizing Castillo as having a ‘history of violence,’" wrote the court.

The ruling says a claim by Kendall that Blackburn testified in court she intended to imply Kendall knew about the history "is a gross mischaracterization of Blackburn’s testimony," and quoted Blackburn’s testimony where she told the court "what I’m saying is Mr. Castillo had a history of violence and Judge Kendall did choose to release him."

Kendall argued Blackburn defamed him by writing he released Williams without supervision, while he actually put him under house arrest.

"Blackburn was present during Williams’s standoff with police and observed firsthand that Williams was in the community unsupervised," wrote the justices, dismissing that argument.

The court also dismissed claims regarding an April 17, 2007 editorial saying Kendall "routinely" allowed men accused of violent, sexual crimes free on their own recognizance, saying the editorial "is a constitutionally protected opinion based on disclosed factual assertions."

According to federal law, appeal from a V.I. Supreme Court decision is not automatic, but may only occur if the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit issues a writ of certiorari, choosing to take the case.

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In a landmark decision helping to define freedom of the press in the territory, the V.I. Supreme Court tossed out retired V.I. Superior Court Judge Leon Kendall's defamation suit against the V.I. Daily News Wednesday, upholding the lower court's directed verdict in the case.

Judge Kendall filed suit in 2009, claiming the V.I. Daily News Publishing Co., along with reporters Joy Blackburn and Joseph Tsidulko, defamed him. At issue were a series of articles reporting Kendall's bail decisions on Chris Carty, Daniel Castillo and Ashley Williams, all of whom were involved in violent incidents after being released by Kendall.

Castillo was convicted of murdering a 12-year-old girl after being released on his own recognizance while awaiting trial for aggravated assault. Carty allegedly stabbed a man to death shortly after Kendall released him on bail for allegedly stabbing another man in the eye. And Williams barricaded himself in his home, forcing a five-hour standoff with police after being allowed to go home for a weekend, under house arrest, before beginning his sentence for two rape convictions and one aggravated assault convictions.

Kendall also claimed editorials calling for him to retire and news articles claiming there were judicial misconduct charges against him were defamatory.

A jury found in favor of Kendall and against the Daily News and Blackburn, but in favor of Tsidulko against Kendall, awarding Kendall $240,000. Two months later, Superior Court Senior Sitting Judge Edgar Ross granted a motion for a directed verdict, saying even in the light most favorable to Kendall, the law and evidence could not support it.

In its ruling finding in favor of the Daily News and Blackburn, the V.I. Supreme Court wrote, "Judge Kendall has failed to present sufficient evidence upon which a reasonable jury could clearly and convincingly find actual malice with respect to any of the publications cited above."

Chief Justice Rhys Hodge, Ive Swan and Designated Justice Adam Christian heard arguments. Christian was designated to replace Justice Maria Cabret, who recused herself.

The court cited several U.S. Supreme Court precedents, including the 1984 Bose Corp v. Consumers Union of United States, which said judges "must independently decide whether the evidence in the record is sufficient to cross the constitutional threshold that bars the entry of any judgment that is not supported by clear and convincing proof of 'actual malice.'" It also cited Milkovich v. Lorain Journal Co., saying that under the U.S. Constitution, when a media statement involves matters of public concern, the person claiming they are false has the burden of proof, not the outlet making the claim.

The landmark 1964 New York Times v. Sullivan case was also cited, wherein the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the Constitution "prohibits a public official from recovering damages for a defamatory falsehood relating to his official conduct unless he proved that the statement was made with 'actual malice.'"

Actual malice means the statement was made either with knowledge it was false or with reckless disregard for the truth. "There must be sufficient evidence to permit the conclusion that the defendant in fact entertained serious doubts as to the truth " of the publication.

Kendall also argued the Daily News defamed him by insinuating he released Castillo despite knowing Castillo's violent past, when the record before him in the court showed a conviction for possession of stolen property and a charge for rape the prosecutor said had been dismissed.

"It is important to note at the outset that none of the articles cited by Judge Kendall directly state that he was aware of the facts surrounding Castillo's first degree rape charge, which is the information Blackburn relied on in characterizing Castillo as having a ‘history of violence,’" wrote the court.

The ruling says a claim by Kendall that Blackburn testified in court she intended to imply Kendall knew about the history "is a gross mischaracterization of Blackburn's testimony," and quoted Blackburn's testimony where she told the court "what I'm saying is Mr. Castillo had a history of violence and Judge Kendall did choose to release him."

Kendall argued Blackburn defamed him by writing he released Williams without supervision, while he actually put him under house arrest.

"Blackburn was present during Williams's standoff with police and observed firsthand that Williams was in the community unsupervised," wrote the justices, dismissing that argument.

The court also dismissed claims regarding an April 17, 2007 editorial saying Kendall "routinely" allowed men accused of violent, sexual crimes free on their own recognizance, saying the editorial "is a constitutionally protected opinion based on disclosed factual assertions."

According to federal law, appeal from a V.I. Supreme Court decision is not automatic, but may only occur if the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit issues a writ of certiorari, choosing to take the case.