Boston Herald and Reporter Bagged for Defamation of Press Pass TV Co-Director
BOSTON - The Boston Herald and one of its reporters have been found liable of defaming a local journalist, community activist, and prison-rights advocate following a jury trial in a Suffolk County court last month.
Joanna Marinova, co-director of the nonprofit news outlet Press Pass TV, sued the Herald and its reporter Jessica Van Sack following a May 28, 2009 article, which falsely claimed that Marinova had sex with an inmate while visiting Old Colony Correctional Facility.
In a verdict reached on March 19, the jury awarded Marinova over $500,000 – not including accrued interest of over $250,000 – for knowingly publishing defamatory statements that Marinova’s lawyer Megan Deluhery says had a “devastating” impact on Marinova, and a damaging effect on Press Pass TV’s youth work.
In a phone interview, Deluhery told Open Media Boston the defamatory article concerned a visit Marinova made to the prison on May 7, 2009 with State Representative Gloria Fox (D-Roxbury), “to investigate reports of abuses … by guards against inmates and their families.”
Deluhery explains that Marinova had just gotten involved in a prison-reform group called End the Odds Coalition – headed by prominent local activist Mel King – and that King asked Rep. Fox to meet with inmate Darrell Jones.
According to Deluhery, Jones “had been involved in an anti-violence video project by another organization unrelated” to Marinova’s work, and “was gathering information about the abuses” at the prison.
Marinova – who was in a relationship with Jones at the time, and has since gotten married to him – booked her visit to the prison on May 7 two days in advance, following procedures, and had her visit approved before going there with Rep. Fox.
After they were both allowed into the prison “they were met by the superintendent and led to an interview room in segregation,” but sometime after Marinova was asked to wait in the lobby, because the superintendent had wrongly “assumed she was a legislative aide,” seen as she was with Rep. Fox.
“That’s pretty much the extent of what happened,” says Deluhery, but “what the paper reported was that our client and the state representative had snuck into the prison on May 7, and that our client had previously been ‘bagged’ for engaging in sexual acts in the visiting room with the inmate.”
Referring to Marinova being mistaken for Rep. Fox’s aide as an “apparent charade” on her part, the Herald articles falsely claims, “Fox and the woman were bagged by a vigilant guard who recognized the ‘aide’ as Jones’ girlfriend - a woman previously written up for engaging in prohibited ‘sexual acts’ in the visitor room with Jones.”
According to Deluhery, during a visit between Marinova and Jones at the prison in November 2008 an “officer reported observing a hand on the leg and a kiss,” and Jones was written up as a consequence of this ‘sexual act,’ along with two other reprimands.
Despite the dismissal of the “sexual acts charge” in that December, which was documented in a prison report, Van Sack claimed that Marinova “had been ‘bagged’ or ‘written up,’ essentially caught in the act,” says Deluhery, “putting ‘sexual acts’ in quotes without explaining the nature of the charge, the underlying conduct, that it had been dismissed, or anything like that.”
As a result of the defamation, Deluhery says that Marinova has suffered personally, and has had her family impacted - while Press Pass TV also lost contracts, had a business plan derailed, which took “them several years to get back on track.”
Asked what the motivations behind the article may have been, Deluhery says she “can’t really speculate,” because there wasn’t evidence at trial,” but added that “if you can just put ‘sexual acts’ in quotes it’s certainly more attention-grabbing than saying there was a hand on the leg and a kiss …”
According to Deluhery, Marinova’s “work is her life, it’s a passion of hers, and so to see this happen to an organization that she had just joined, and was trying to take to the next level was really devastating for her, so she’s very gratified by the outcome of the case.
“That it’s finally out there in the public domain that what they printed is not true, so that at least if people continue to find this article, maybe they’ll also find the outcome of this lawsuit and not just believe it for what it says,” she continues.
According to a statement released by the Herald following the jury verdict, the paper “has stated since its May 28, 2009 article on a major security breach at Old Colony Prison was published that its article was entirely correct, from its headline to its last line. The article was meticulously researched, carefully written and extremely well-documented. We are proud of it, and of the journalist who wrote it."
“The article was not only excellent, but important, leading as it did to a Department of Corrections investigation and certain reform measures. Lawsuits like the one filed here are serious threats not only to the rights of a free and robust press, but to the rights of the citizenry that expects, and depends upon, that free and robust press. The Herald fully expects to ultimately prevail in this matter,” the statement continues.
A lawyer for the Boston Herald declined to add to the paper’s statement, but confirmed that an appeal has been filed on behalf of the defense.
Full Disclosure: Open Media Boston editor/publisher Jason Pramas has been a member of the Press Pass TV Board of Advisors since the organization's inception.