Judge in Ohio Murder Case Sues Newspaper for $50M

April 9, 2010

A judge in Ohio presiding over the trial of a man charged with murdering 11 women and hiding their bodies around his home has sued a newspaper covering the case for $50 million in damages.

An attorney for Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Judge Shirley Strickland Saffold and her daughter, Sydney Saffold, filed the lawsuit on April 7, charging that The Plain Dealer, parent company Advance Publications Inc. and the company that runs the newspaper’s Web site released confidential information that violated the site’s privacy policy.

The newspaper reported on March 26 that inflammatory anonymous comments posted on its Web site, cleveland.com, about serial killings suspect Anthony Sowell were traced to the judge’s personal AOL e-mail account.

The judge denied posting the comments and said her daughter posted them using her e-mail account.

Plain Dealer Executive Editor Susan Goldberg declined to comment. Goldberg and several reporters also are named in the lawsuit.

Saffold attorney Brian Spitz said that the e-mail account used was a joint family account and that while Shirley Strickland Saffold did post some comments using that e-mail address she never posted anything about cases pending in her courtroom.

Spitz said the family is trying to ascertain the identity of the editor who looked up the personal information and add that person to the lawsuit.

“This is uncharted territory,” he said. “It’s something that we feel very passionate about. And we hope it protects other people’s privacy.”

Sowell, 50, has pleaded not guilty in the slayings of 11 women whose bodies were found at his home in November. His lawyers filed a motion last week asking the judge to step aside because they claim the comments show bias or – if they were made by someone else – the appearance of bias. The judge has refused.

One comment posted to the Web site lumped Sowell with a man who killed his fiancée and another man who killed his wife with cyanide.

“All of these criminals committing crimes against women must stop,” it said. “None of them should get out of prison, EVER.”

Another comment was critical of one of Sowell’s defense attorneys, Rufus Sims.

The e-mail address was tracked to Saffold after a posting, under the username lawmiss, revealed personal medical information about a reporter’s family member.

An online editor decided to track down the e-mail address without consulting anyone, the newspaper said. A handful of online editors at the time had access to e-mail addresses of people posting comments.

Advance Internet, the sister company that owns cleveland.com and several other newspaper Web sites, has since shut off editors’ access to personal information of people who post comments. The company said it never intended to make that information available to its affiliated newspapers.

A release from Spitz’s office says Saffold has defended herself from “attacks from the Plain Dealer since she began serving on the Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas bench in 1995″ but has never taken legal action.

“Judge Saffold has shown restraint in the past because she is a judge, but she is also a mother and will always see that as the most significant part of her life,” Spitz said in a statement.

Spitz said Saffold and her daughter jointly signed up for a user account on the site, providing information that they were told would be kept private. He said the Web site violated a contractual obligation to protect his clients’ privacy.

Spitz said the promise of confidentiality was breached for “personal vendetta reasons.” He said in the release that Sydney Saffold briefly attended law school and often spent time in court discussing proceedings with parties, attorneys and others.

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