A Wichita television station that lost a defamation lawsuit for naming a possible suspect in the BTK serial killings told the Kansas Supreme Court this week that it did nothing wrong and shouldn’t be penalized for its reporting.
But the attorney for Roger Valadez’s estate, Craig Shultz, told the justices that the Dec. 1, 2004, report on station KSN amounted to defamation and outrageous conduct, as a Sedgwick County jury decided in October 2006. The jury awarded a combined $1.1 million on the two claims.
Valadez, 66, died a month after the trial, in which Emmis Communications, then the owner of KSN, and its then-news director Todd Spessard were defendants.
The station aired Valadez’s name after his arrest at his home on minor outstanding warrants. Valadez never was charged in the BTK case and was released after DNA tested eliminated him as a suspect in the killings.
After Valadez died, a Sedgwick County judge dismissed the defamation verdict and reduced the total damages to $250,000 on the outrageous conduct claim alone.
Attorneys for Valadez’s estate want the defamation verdict reinstated. KSN wants that decision to stand but wants the outrageous conduct verdict dismissed.
Dennis Rader was arrested in February 2005 as the BTK killer and confessed to 10 killings in the Wichita area between 1974 and 1991. Rader, 63, is serving 10 consecutive life sentences at El Dorado Correctional Center.
The two main issues during Monday’s hearing were whether the station’s reporting amounted to outrageous conduct and whether the defamation verdict should have survived Valadez’s died.
Bernard Rhodes, a Kansas City, Mo., attorney representing the station, said KSN was correct when it reported Valadez had been arrested, his DNA taken and his home searched by BTK investigators. He said KSN also later reported that the police chief said Valadez wasn’t a BTK suspect.
“The overarching issue this case presents to this court is whether the truthful reporting of the name of a criminal suspect as part of a police investigation into a high-profile case can be the basis for imposing liability on the media,” Rhodes said.
But Shultz said the evidence “shows the shameful nature of reporting” that was done.
“In a sense, it was like a gamble. The press, KSN in particular, which gave up Mr. Valadez’s name, made a bet. They bet they were going to come out right, and they weren’t,” Shultz said.
The BTK killer — a name Rader coined for “Bind, Torture, Kill” — had terrorized Wichita throughout the 1970s and had taunted authorities with anonymous letters. BTK resurfaced with new messages in 2004.
Justice Carol Beier asked if KSN had sources in naming Valadez.
“We had shoe-leather reporting. We did not have a source inside the Police Department,” Rhodes said. “We had people on the ground at the house who saw in the middle of the night police conducting the search.”
Rhodes said the station knew Valadez owned the house but didn’t air his name until it confirmed he had been jailed and a judge had set a cash bond of $25,000.
“Every other station in town was doing exactly the same thing. How can …,” Rhodes told the court before he was interrupted by Justice Lee Johnson.
“That isn’t true,” Johnson said. “They weren’t doing exactly the same thing. They were not identifying Mr. Valadez by name. Your client is the only news media using the name.”
Rhodes agreed, again raising the question of whether the truthful reporting of a name is grounds for punishment.
“We have the right to report the facts,” he said.
Johnson also questioned Shultz about whether Valadez was a BTK suspect. Shultz agreed that Valadez was a “person of interest” in the BTK investigation.
“There were elements of truth in their report, but this was an all-day deal,” Shultz said. “They kept juxtapositioning these things that would imply something that simply wasn’t true.”
Shultz also said the defamation verdict should be reinstated because the jury reached its decision before Valadez died and that was a final judgment.
Rhodes said the trial judge ruled correctly and the defamation decision shouldn’t be reinstated.
The case is Melanie L. Valadez v. Emmiss Communications and Todd Spessard, No. 99,139
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