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Fired Carroll County prosecutor’s suit advances

A fired senior Carroll County prosecutor can proceed with his lawsuit against a local newspaper for its news reports and editorial stating that he gave false testimony about a homicide.

Judge Ronald A. Silkworth rejected the Carroll County Times’ motion to dismiss David P. Daggett’s defamation action, which alleges that the newspaper mischaracterized his testimony at the March 5 hearing and printed an editorial that suggested he should be fired.

“Obviously, we are pleased because now we can go forward with our case, and that’s what we’re going to do,” said Daggett’s attorney, James B. Astrachan.

But he voiced concern that even an ultimate victory in court would not undo the harm Daggett has suffered from the alleged defamation.

“You can adjudicate that he was defamed,” said Astrachan, of Astrachan Gunst Thomas Rubin PC in Baltimore. “But that doesn’t get you your reputation back.”

The newspaper, in its motion to dismiss, had argued it was protected by Maryland’s fair-report privilege, which shields media from liability if they “fairly” report on what happened in a court proceeding.

The reports were “substantially correct” and provided a “reasonable abbreviation” of Daggett’s testimony, the Times argued.

The newspaper engaged in “entirely lawful and accurate reporting of the highest public concern: the state’s embarrassing dismissal of charges against two murder defendants after public officials mishandled the case,” Charles D. Tobin, the Times’ attorney, stated in his court filing.

Astrachan countered the privilege did not apply because the articles “falsely assert that [Daggett] gave false testimony during a judicial proceeding, the result of which is that Plaintiff was fired from his position.” Silkworth denied the newspaper’s motion to dismiss in a one-sentence order filed Wednesday, allowing the case to proceed to trial.

Tobin declined to comment. He is with Holland & Knight LLP in Washington.

The question asked

At issue was Daggett’s response when asked whether he had received a call from someone in law enforcement “with questions about” the slaying of Jeremiah P. DeMario on the night his body was found, Sept. 14, 2010.

Daggett responded: “Not to my knowledge, no.”

Daggett says he truthfully answered the question that was asked. The Carroll County Times reported that he answered falsely.

Phone records show that Daggett received a call that night from Sgt. Jay Prise of the Carroll County Sheriff’s Office.

However, “Sgt. Prise did not telephone Mr. Daggett for the purpose of seeking legal advice and sought none, and did not ask Mr. Daggett any questions regarding the crime, its investigation or any other manner of subjects related there to,” the complaint stated. “Instead, the call was a perfunctory telephone call simply to inform Mr. Daggett of the DeMario homicide — a standard practice in Carroll County law enforcement, as Mr. Daggett testified to at the hearing.”

In its reporting, the Times focused on the records showing police had called Daggett, the county’s chief deputy state’s attorney. The newspaper also published an editorial April 29 calling for a “thorough housecleaning” by the Sheriff’s Department and the Carroll County State’s Attorney’s Office, which the lawsuit characterized as “suggesting to the reader that Mr. Daggett should be removed from his position.”

State’s Attorney Jerry F. Barnes fired Daggett on May 1 after he declined to resign, according to the lawsuit filed two days later in Carroll County Circuit Court. That court, on its own motion, transferred the case to Anne Arundel County Circuit Court on May 9.

The articles defamed Daggett by essentially accusing him of perjury, the lawsuit stated. The newspaper could have, but apparently did not, verify its reporting by reviewing the hearing transcript, Astrachan wrote. (Astrachan chairs The Daily Record’s Editorial Advisory Board.)

The Times published the articles with “knowledge of their falsity or with reckless disregard as to their truth,” the lawsuit stated.

The articles cost Daggett his job and caused on-going harm to his reputation, emotional distress and financial loss, the lawsuit stated. He seeks damages of “not less than” $1 million.

Daggett’s testimony came at a March 5 hearing for Cassandra Glover, who, with Russell Scott Laderer, was charged in the death of DeMario.

Laderer faced a first-degree murder charge and Glover was charged with obstructing police and being an accessory after the fact. Barnes dropped the charges March 12, citing a lack of admissible evidence.

The Times, in three articles between April 25 and May 3, reported that Daggett testified he had not been called by the police — despite phone records to the contrary — after DeMario’s body was discovered. Identical headlines on two of those stories read “Deputy state’s attorney in Carroll County gave false testimony, records show.”

Tobin, in the motion to dismiss, said the Times “reporting is a substantially correct account of the testimony at the hearing, including the gist of Daggett’s testimony, that he received no calls at all that night.”