Media & Communications Law

Judge OKs pro se prisoner's libel suit over legal publication's recap of his case

Sentenced to a life prison term in 1983 after being convicted of second-degree murder in the slayings of two U.S. marshals, Yorie Von Kahl has apparently honed his litigation skills in the meantime.

Unhappy with a summary of a judge’s sentencing ruling published by a Bureau of National Affairs Inc. reporter, he sued for defamation in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, representing himself, and recently won a favorable ruling on a motion for judgment filed by opposing counsel, the Blog of Legal Times reports.

At issue were comments made by a prosecutor concerning sentencing, which Kahl recounted in a pro se 2005 petition for certiorari to the U.S. Supreme Court.

A Criminal Law Reporter summary of the cert petition made it sound as though the comments, which were critical of Kahl, had come from the judge, the BLT article explains. BNA said this was because Kahl, in his cert petition, gave that impression, and its publication had simply provided an accurate account of the petition.

The company’s argument that a fair reporting privilege should thus provide a shield against Kahl’s suit was unsuccessful, however—the judge said the plaintiff had asserted a valid libel claim concerning the publication’s contention that he showed no contrition for his crimes. A March 30 opinion (PDF) also held that Kahl’s murder conviction does not make him “libel proof;” that Kahl is a limited-purpose public figure; and that Kahl cannot seek damages for libel per se but may prove special damages.

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