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'Train Deaths' libel suit winds down

Posted By Sarah Foster On 08/05/1999 @ 1:00 am In Front Page | Comments Disabled

Only a few hours remain in the trial of beleaguered documentary producer Pat
Matrisciana, who is fighting a multi-million lawsuit for statements aired in
his 1996 video, “Obstruction of Justice: The Mena Connection,” which
focuses on
the unsolved homicides of Kevin Ives, 17, and Don
Henry, 16, whose mangled bodies were found on railroad tracks near their home
in Alexander, Ark., on Aug. 23, 1987.

Jay Campbell and Kirk Lane, two of the deputy sheriffs mentioned in the video
as being possible suspects in the deaths, are suing the California producer
for
$16 million for allegedly libeling them and intentionally defaming their
reputations. Also named in the suit is Matrisciana’s company Jeremiah
Films, as
well as Citizens for Honest Government, a non-profit watchdog organization he
founded and which distributes the video.

The film contends that the teens stumbled across a drug drop some time after
midnight, and were bludgeoned and stabbed to death in order to silence them as
witnesses and their bodies were placed on the tracks where a train was certain
to run over them — thus making it appear an accident.

A 1988 Saline County grand jury ruled the deaths to be homicides and
recommended law enforcement officials to launch a full-scale investigation to
find those responsible. Those responsible were never brought to justice, and
much of the film deals with cover-up on the part of officials — some in the
highest levels of government.

The trial began Monday in U.S. District Court in Little Rock, Ark., before
U.S.
District Judge Warren Urbom of Lincoln, Neb. Both sides agreed to time
constraints. Testimony is to be completed today, and witnesses for Matrisciana
are hoping to get everything they can into the
record.

“How can we get 12 years into a few hours,” said Linda Ives, mother of one of
the slain teens, who has fought long and hard for justice for her son.

Campbell and Lane took the witness stand Tuesday to declare their innocence
and
express outrage at having been falsely accused. They claimed their reputations
and careers in law enforcement had been damaged.

“I haven’t defamed anyone,” said Matrisciana before the trial. “I simply
presented the facts and stated that the evidence implicated certain people.
There was no malice here and no reckless disregard for the truth. In fact, if
it weren’t for my video the truth might never be told and justice might never
be done in this case.”

On Monday Matrisciana endured extensive and relentless questioning by lawyers
for the plaintiffs. The veteran filmmaker defended his methods and intentions
in producing the controversial film, and claimed the First Amendment right
of protecting his confidential sources whose lives might be endangered if
their
identities were revealed.

During yesterday’s testimony, jurors received a lesson in libel law and the
First Amendment as two expert witnesses explained the legal standard
established by the High Court in the 1964 New York Times v. Sullivan
case. Both Robert R. Douglas, a journalism professor and former managing
editor
of the Arkansas Gazette, and Joseph Farah, founder of the Western Journalism
Center and publisher of the Internet newspaper WorldNetDaily, agreed that the
U.S. Supreme Court had ruled that “actual malice” and/or “reckless disregard
for the truth” were necessary to void the sweeping First Amendment protection
on journalistic expression.

Farah got the last word during his cross-examination, said John Wheeler, media
contact for the defense, who recalled the testimony for WorldNetDaily by
phone.

“How can you be guilty of reckless disregard for the truth when you are
passionately pursuing what you sincerely believe to be the truth?”
Farah
challenged the plaintiff’s attorney Darren O’Quinn, of the Little Rock firm of
Dover & Dixon.

As reported by Matrisciana’s attorney, John Wesley Hall of Little Rock, “I got
their expert to admit to what Joseph [Farah] was arguing, namely, that the
documentary film maker is not governed by the same rules as a journalist who’s
got the same readers every day. What a reporter does and a documentary
producer
does are two different things. They’re held to the same standards — they
cannot show a reckless disregard for the truth — they just don’t have the
same
internal limits they’ve imposed on themselves. Their expert admitted that the
two-source rule — if you can call it that — is a matter of journalistic
ethics and not required by libel law.”

Hall said the plaintiffs have presented a sympathetic case for themselves, but
have not shown that Matrisciana showed a reckless disregard for the truth.

For more information, Linda Ives and Jean Duffey, former head of an
Arkansas drug task force, maintain a “Train Deaths” website at
http://www.idmedia.com/.

The trial is expected to end tomorrow.

 


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