Judge sides with newspapers in defamation case initiated by state inmate

By Jon Campisi | Apr 22, 2013

A judge has sided with the owners of the Philadelphia Inquirer and Philadelphia Daily

News in a case in which an imprisoned man had claimed he was defamed in articles printed by the newspapers.

Jerry Chambers filed suit against the news organizations in late 2011 over allegations the papers had printed false articles about him following his arrest in 2003 for the murder of a 3-year-old girl.

Chambers was subsequently tried and convicted of the crime, and he currently resides in the state prison in Waynesburg, Pa.

The articles published by the defendants, according to the inmate’s complaint, pertained to accusations that Chambers beat the girl, whose name was Porchia Bennett, threw her into a cast iron radiator and killed her.

The lawsuit alleged that Chambers was convicted on “all charges except rape,” averred that there was actually “no evidence” against Chambers, made claims for race discrimination, defamation and intentional infliction of emotional distress, and sought $60 million in damages, the record shows.

Last July, Philadelphia Media Network, which owns the newspapers and was listed as the defendant in the case, filed court papers seeking to have the lawsuit dismissed.

The motion, however, was deemed moot after the court granted Chambers’ motion for leave to file an amended complaint, which he did in early October of last year, and in which he reiterated that the defendants published defamatory articles about Chambers and the murder of young Bennett.

The amended complaint also alleged that government officials had provided false information to the newspapers that they used in their articles.

One example given in the complaint of an allegedly defamatory statement made by the defendants was that Chambers was a crack cocaine addict.

The complaint also claimed that the newspapers acted in concert with police and state officials to secure an unlawful and unsupported conviction against Chambers.

In ruling in the defendants’ favor, U.S. District Judge Gene E.K. Pratter, sitting in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, wrote that a plaintiff seeking to hold an individual liable under Section 1983 of the Civil Rights Act must establish that he or she was deprived of a federal constitutional or statutory right by a “state actor,” and in this case, the complaint fails to set forth facts that suggest plausibly that any of the defendants are state actors.

“Instead, the [first amended complaint] contains conclusory assertions that ‘all defendants were in concert with police and state officials to secure an unlawful and unsupported conviction,’” Pratter wrote. “Such allegations do not and cannot give rise to a [Section 1983] claim against the Defendants.”

Pratter wrote that because the news organizations are private parties, and they did not act under color of state law, the trial court was correct to dismiss the complaint.

The court also declined to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over Chambers’ state law claims.

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