CNN’s Nancy Grace has been sued for defamation by Michael Skakel, a Kennedy relative who’s spent more than a dozen years in prison for murder. Here’s the New York Times article for full background, but suffice it to say that Grace and one of her guests accused Skakel of being tied to the crime with DNA evidence. No such evidence was ever entered in court proceedings so it’s unclear where they got this information.
In order to win a libel case, the plaintiff must prove that the defamatory information was false, disseminated and caused harm. In addition, public figures must prove “actual malice,” that the information was known to be untrue. Private figures need only prove that the journalists acted with negligence of some kind. It’s unclear whether Skakel will be treated as a public or private figure but previous cases have held that people charged with crimes become limited-purpose public figures.
If a public figure, Skakel would need to prove that Grace and her guest knew the DNA evidence was never present and yet said that it was anyway. CNN hasn’t released any details about where Grace got the information but during the discovery process, she will definitely be asked under oath to explain her sourcing. If a private figure, Skakel would need to only prove the Grace and her guest didn’t follow normal newsroom procedures to verify the DNA evidence information.
Either way, Skakel looks to have a good case since the DNA information appears to be definitely untrue.
Another defense will regard Skakel’s tarnished reputation. Some libel cases have been won when the defense proved the plaintiff’s reputation was so bad that it couldn’t be damaged any further. Given that Skakel is out of prison and receiving a new trial, Grace and her co-defendant’s probably won’t be able to make that defense stick.
It’s an interesting case — one that will be fun to follow, as long CNN’s corporate bosses don’t decide to cut their losses and settle.