Newspaper wins 10-year libel fight with convict

Thursday, July 2, 2009

The New Hampshire Supreme Court last week brought an end to a multi-year libel suit against a newspaper and its sources.

Terry Thomas sued the Nashua (N.H.) Telegraph in December 2002, claiming a 1999 story about his arrest and criminal history was defamatory. The story connected Thomas to 1,000 crimes in New Hampshire and Massachusetts over a period spanning nearly 30 years. Several police officers who commented for the story were also named in the suit.

In its June 24 opinion, the state’s highest court found the comments were privileged, upholding an earlier decision in favor of the newspaper and police officers.

Thomas v. Telegraph Publishing Co. went to the state Supreme Court twice before, leading to a 2007 decision that Thomas’s criminal history did not make him “libel-proof.” The newspaper had argued that Thomas’s past convictions damaged his reputation to the point that even libelous statements could not make it any worse.

The court, addressing the issue for the first time, adopted an issue-specific version of the “libel-proof plaintiff doctrine.” Under that ruling, judges in New Hampshire must look not only at the nature and number of prior convictions, but also the amount of publicity those convictions received.

The case was sent back to Hillsborough County Superior Court Judge William Groff to determine whether the newspaper and police officers were immune from liability because their statements were made “in good faith, for a justifiable purpose.” Groff found that they were, and the Supreme Court agreed. The lower court also found the statements were made without actual malice.

Thomas was convicted in 2001 on three counts of receiving stolen property, according to court documents.

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