A judge has, for the second time, dismissed a lawsuit by a convicted
murderer who sought $60 million in damages from a local media company over what the plaintiff alleged were defamatory news articles relating to his killing of a young child.
In a Sept. 12 ruling, U.S. District Judge Gene E.K. Pratter granted a petition by attorneys representing the Philadelphia Inquirer and others that sought to toss a second amended complaint filed by Jerry Chambers.
As previously reported by the Pennsylvania Record, Chambers had filed suit against Philadelphia Media Network, the parent company of the Inquirer and its sister publication, the Philadelphia Daily News, as well as the South Philly Review, a local community publication, over articles the plaintiff claimed were defamatory, and which caused him great emotional distress.
Chambers, of South Philadelphia, had been convicted in the August 2003 beating death of 3-year-old Porchia Bennett, according to past news reports.
He was subsequently sentenced to death, plus 73 to 146 years in state prison, for his crimes.
In his complaint, Chambers alleged that the papers published false articles about him after his arrest in Bennett’s killing.
The suit accused the defendants of race discrimination, defamation and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
The defendants’ initial motion to dismiss was deemed moot by the court after the judge allowed Chambers an opportunity to file an amended complaint.
That second filing claimed that government officials had provided false information to reporters that the journalists ultimately used in their stories.
One such example of a defamatory statement made in the articles that was supposedly linked to reporters’ sources was that Chambers was a crack cocaine addict.
The lawsuit alleged that the newspapers acted in concert with police and state officials to secure an unlawful and unsupported conviction against Chambers.
Back in April, Pratter, the judge, wrote that a plaintiff seeking to hold someone liable under Section 1983 of the federal Civil Rights Act must establish that he or she was deprived of a constitutional or statutory right by a “state actor,” and that Chambers failed to establish that any of the defendants were 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 at the time.
In last week’s memorandum, the judge similarly wrote that Chambers’ mere assertion that the defendants conspired with state officials is not enough to suggest state action under Section 1983.
“Proving concerted action or conspiracy with the state officials would require more than proving, even if Mr. Chambers could, that the Defendants discriminated against Mr. Chambers or were otherwise racially motivated, negligent, or both, in their reporting,” Pratter wrote. “It would require more than proving that the Defendants failed to investigate Mr. Chambers’s side of the story, and that this failure resulted from some prejudice they might have.”
Rather, Pratter continued, Chambers would have to prove that the defendants and the state authorities reached an agreement to discriminate against Chambers or otherwise deprive him of his federal rights.
None of Chambers’s allegations, however, plausibly suggest “any such meeting of the minds,” and for that reason the plaintiff cannot turn to the federal courts to vindicate his claims under Section 1983, Pratter wrote.
“Without more – here, specific allegations of an agreement – the Court cannot reasonably infer that a conspiracy, and thus state action, existed,” the judge wrote.