ANNAPOLIS — The Baltimore City Paper violated its privilege to report fairly and accurately on a double murder trial when it published articles implicating a former nightclub owner who was never charged in the slayings, the man’s attorney told Maryland’s top court Friday.
But the newspaper’s lawyer told the Court of Appeals that nothing in the reporting about Nicholas Piscatelli’s potential involvement in the killings was untrue.
The legal odyssey to the high court began in January 2009, when the Baltimore City Circuit Court dismissed the defamation lawsuit brought by Piscatelli, co-owner of the former Redwood Trust nightclub, against City Paper and reporter Van Smith. The Court of Special Appeals upheld the dismissal, saying the paper and reporter Van Smith were protected by fair reporting and fair comment privileges.
But attorney Peter A. Prevas, pressing Piscatelli’s high-court appeal, said City Paper and Smith forfeited those legal privileges by publishing two articles based largely on an “unconfirmed rumor” — a statement by the mother of one of the victims that she had heard the nightclub owner was behind the slayings.
The mother’s statement, contained in court papers, was never introduced at trial, Prevas told the court.
“You can abuse your privilege by not fairly and accurately reporting what went on during that trial,” said Prevas, of Prevas & Prevas in Baltimore. Reporters “must fairly and accurately report on the case.”
But Peter F. Axelrad, the attorney for City Paper and Smith, said his clients did nothing wrong because there was “nothing false” in the article.
“We quoted what was said … and we talked about it,” Axelrad told the court. “That’s what reporters do, that’s what newspapers do.”
In the articles, the newspaper reported on the killings of the nightclub’s manager, Jason Convertino, and a friend, Sean Wisniewski, at Convertino’s home in April 2003.
Anthony Jerome Miller, a former security guard at the club, was convicted of both murders on March 15, 2007, and sentenced to two consecutive 30-year prison terms. (The Court of Appeals affirmed Miller’s convictions last month.)
Smith’s reporting on the case included comments from Convertino’s mother that unnamed sources had told her Piscatelli had threatened to kill Convertino and was behind the murder of the two men.
Smith also interviewed Piscatelli, whose denial of any wrongdoing was included in the two articles, published in December 2006 and June 2007.
Appearing Friday before the high court, Prevas said the newspaper violated fair reporting and comment privileges by reporting in essence that “Mr. Piscatelli is the killer.”
But several judges appeared unconvinced.
Judge Lynne A. Battaglia said journalists are free to report what is said at trial and included in court records without first judging its legal merit.
“No reporter is going to sit and figure what is grasping at straws and what isn’t,” Battaglia said.
Chief Judge Robert M. Bell said Smith validly reported on what was told to the mother and stated in court.
And Judge Sally D. Adkins said reporters are generally permitted to “speculate” on what they learn from court documents and trial testimony.
Axelrad told the court that City Paper and Smith provided “a fair analysis … of a matter of serious interest.”
“We reported what happened, what we heard,” added Axelrad, of Council, Baradel, Kosmerl & Nolan PA in Annapolis. “We did not say he did something.”
Piscatelli — “whether he liked it or not” — was mentioned both at trial and in court filings, Axelrad said. “He was hurled into it by others, not by us.”
The Court of Appeals did not say when it will render a decision in the case, Piscatelli v. Smith, et al., No. 18 September Term 2011.