A federal appeals court yesterday reinstated a defamation lawsuit filed by a former Army scientist against the New York Times Co., saying articles by Nicholas D. Kristof that it published could be read as blaming him for the 2001 anthrax attacks.
Steven J. Hatfill, who has been identified by authorities as a "person of interest" in the anthrax-spore mailings that killed five people and sickened 17, filed the suit last year in U.S. District Court in Alexandria. He contended that the paper defamed him in a series of Kristof columns that identified him as a "likely culprit."
Last year, a federal judge in Alexandria dismissed the lawsuit, ruling that Kristof's columns did not accuse Hatfill of guilt and that he was instead correctly reporting that Hatfill was the "overwhelming focus" of the FBI anthrax probe as of 2003.
But the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit yesterday overturned that ruling and sent the case back to the lower court.
The 2 to 1 decision said that Hatfill's lawsuit "adequately alleges that Kristof's columns, taken together, are capable of defamatory meaning.'' The majority decision, written by Judge Dennis W. Shedd and joined by Chief Judge William W. Wilkins Jr., said "a reasonable reader of Kristof's columns likely would conclude that Hatfill was responsible for the anthrax mailings in 2001.''
Judge Paul V. Niemeyer dissented, saying he found "nothing in the letter or spirit of the columns" that could be read to accuse Hatfill "of the [anthrax] murders."
Thomas Connolly, an attorney for Hatfill, said that his client is satisfied with the ruling but that "the average newspaper reader should never have known Dr. Hatfill's name."
Toby Usnik, a Times spokesman, said the paper is disappointed but remains "confident in our case. Mr. Kristof's columns were fair and accurate.''
In a series of columns in 2002, Kristof criticized the FBI for failing to aggressively pursue a scientist he initially called "Mr. Z." He wrote that the biodefense community had called Mr. Z a "likely culprit," partly because the scientist was familiar with anthrax.
Kristof later acknowledged that Hatfill was Mr. Z. He also wrote that Hatfill deserved the "presumption of innocence."
Hatfill, a former researcher at the Army's infectious disease research laboratory at Fort Detrick in Frederick, has been waging a legal battle to clear his name ever since then-Attorney General John D. Ashcroft publicly called him a person of interest in the anthrax probe in 2002.
No one has been charged in the investigation of anthrax-tainted letters mailed to media and government offices.