A Superior Court jury here has found two reporters and the San Francisco Examiner guilty of libel and ordered them to pay $4.56 million.
The decision ended six weeks of trial and none hours of deliberation in a case stemming from a series of articles alleging that based on false information, an innocent man was convicted of murder in 1972.
Most of the damages- $3 million-were assessed against the Examiner, a Hearst newspaper, which published the series of front pages articles in 1976 entitled "How Lies Sent Youth to Prison for Murder."
The articles, written by staff reporter Raul Ramirez and free-lance reporter Lowell Bergman, now a reporter for ABC-TV, alleged that two of the key witnesses in the murder trial has been pressured or threatened into giving false testimony that law enforcement officials had allegedly helped craft.
The officials-then-San Francisco police officers Frank McCoy and Edward Erdelatz and then-district attorney Pierre Merle-denied the charges, sued for $30 million, and were awarded the $4.56 million.
Bergman and Ramirez, weary from six weeks of testimony, visibly sagged as Judge Clayton Horn intoned the verdict at 10:30 p.m. PST Wednesday. Their case, almost certain to be appealed, has drawn national attention, but today there were sharp disagreements on the case's proabable effect on investigative reporting, particularly since the evidence presented was complex and rarely agreed upon.
"The guts of this case were the right of the press to report and comment on public officials," said Examiner attorney E. John Kleines. "If this doesn't trample those rights in the dust, I don't know what does. If we can't critize public officials, what are we going to do, write recipes?"
Charles O. Morgan, the lawyer for the plaintiffs, was brief in his retort: "No, I don't think it will have an effect on investigation. I think the press needs some restraints. You can't go around making these kinds of charges."
Crucial to the case was a sworn affidavit which Bergman had obtained from a convict. In it, the convict recanted his testimony which had helped send the allegedly innocent man to jail, saying that officials had created his testimony for him, threatened him with physical abuse and offered to prosecute him on reduced charges if he complied with their wishes.
After the articles appeared, however, he recanted his affidavit and stood by his original testimony.
The jurors had been instructed by Judge Horn that accepting sworn evidence from a source without substantial independent verification was in itself enough to show the stories were prepared and published with "reckless disregard" for the truth, a key element in a libel finding.
A significant part of the trial was the prosecution's inquiry into the "state of mind" of the two reporters. So-called "state of mind" law suits have been thrust into the news since Wednesday's U.S. Supreme Court "Herbert" decision strengthening the ability of plaintiffs to dig into the attitudes and thinking of journalists while they worked on a story.
The prosecution usually depicted the Cuban-born Ramirez as perhaps overly sumpathetic toward the man convicted of murder because he was a member of an immigrant youth gang in Chinatown. When Ramirez immigrated to the United States, it was as a non-English speaker.
Morgan dwelled far more on Bergman, whom he depicted as "antiestablishment." The prosecution alluded to articles Bergman had written criticizing former California governor Ronald Reagan and former California attorney general Evelle Younger, as well as an expose he did for Rolling Stone magazine regarding the FBI's Cointelpro program aimed at the Black Panthers.
Bergman's personal life was opened up when Morgan was able to get into evidence Bergman's status as an unmarried father of two children. Morgan strove to show that Bergman is an ideologivally motivated reporter.
Morgan said the reporters were not only opposed "to our justice system, but probably wanted to tear it down"
On the other side, Judge Horn routinely denied the defense's attempt to discuss any information known to Bergman and Ramirez about the state of mind of the police and the prosecutor. The judge also refused to admit evidence regarding long-standing corruption charges against police in Chinatown.
Attorneys for the reporters say they think this was an error reversible on appeal.