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Fired Carroll Co. prosecutor loses defamation lawsuit

A fired Carroll County prosecutor has lost his $1 million defamation lawsuit against a county newspaper over articles and an editorial it published, which said he had given false testimony about a homicide.

Judge Pamela L. North dismissed the lawsuit last week before trial in Anne Arundel County Circuit Court. North concluded that David P. Daggett could not prove the Carroll County Times or reporter Brett Lake had shown “actual malice” — a reckless disregard for the truth — in reporting on Daggett’s testimony or in printing an editorial that suggested he be fired.

The Times’ attorney, Charles D. Tobin, praised North’s ruling for Lake, the newspaper and its corporate parent, Landmark Community Newspapers of Maryland.

“The newspaper always believed its coverage was lawful, accurate and in the public interest,” said Tobin, of Holland & Knight LLP in Washington. “We are pleased and not surprised that the judge agreed.”

Daggett’s attorney, James B. Astrachan, stated in an email Tuesday that “we are reviewing the opinion and considering appeal.” Astrachan, who chairs The Daily Record’s independent Editorial Advisory Board, is with Astrachan Gunst Thomas P.C. in Baltimore.

The Times’ articles and editorial addressed Daggett’s response under oath on March 5, 2012, when asked if he had received a call from a law enforcement officer “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.”

The Times reported that Daggett had answered falsely, based on phone records that showed he had received a call that night from Sgt. Jay Prise of the Carroll County Sheriff’s Office.

Daggett, in his lawsuit, stated he had truthfully answered the question asked, because Prise had not in fact called “with questions about” anything. Rather, Prise was calling to tell Daggett of the DeMario homicide, a standard practice in Carroll County law enforcement, the lawsuit stated.

But North, in her memorandum opinion, said the Times’ characterization of Daggett’s testimony was not in reckless disregard for the truth, and thus not legally defamatory.

“Whether or not [Daggett] may have answered in a manner he thought was truthful is not at issue here, nor is it dispositive of the question before the court on this motion for summary judgment,” North wrote. “Even if Plaintiff thought he answered truthfully, his answer was a false statement to any listener.”

Lake, the reporter, had taken “exhaustive measures” to ensure his stories were accurate, North wrote. Those steps included having 10 sources confirm Daggett’s testimony was false during the seven weeks before Lake filed his first story and the newspaper published it, the judge added.

The Times, in three articles between April 25 and May 3, 20120, 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 the stories read, “Deputy state’s attorney in Carroll County gave false testimony, records show.”

The newspaper also published an editorial April 29, 2012, 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, 2012, 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.

Barnes, through an aide, declined to comment Tuesday on Daggett’s departure from the state’s attorney’s office.

In the lawsuit, Daggett said the Times published the articles with “knowledge of their falsity or with reckless disregard as to their truth.” The articles defamed Daggett by essentially accusing him of perjury, which cost him his job and caused on-going harm to his reputation, emotional distress and financial loss, the lawsuit stated.

Daggett sought damages of “not less than” $1 million.

In her opinion, North said the actual-malice standard applied because Daggett, as deputy state’s attorney, was a public official. Had North deemed him a private citizen, Daggett would have needed to show only that the Times was negligent in reporting that his testimony was false.

Daggett’s status as a supervisor and administrator at the state’s attorney’s office made him a public official under the criteria established by the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1966 libel decision, Rosenblatt v. Baer, North added.

Daggett’s controversial testimony came at a March 5, 2012, hearing on pre-trial motions filed on behalf of Cassandra Glover, who, with Russell Scott Laderer, faced charges in connection with DeMario’s death.

Glover was charged with obstructing police and being an accessory after the fact. Laderer faced a first-degree murder charge.

However, the pre-trial motions led to a series of rulings that held crucial evidence to be inadmissible due to violations of the suspects’ rights.

Barnes dropped the charges on March 12, 2012, citing the lack of admissible evidence.