Texas Supreme Court Overturns Defamation Verdict

The Supreme Court of Texas has tossed a defamation verdict and appeals court decision against a reporter and newspaper, saying that the “gist” of the contested article was substantially true. 

The article in question, by Valerie Reddell, appeared in the Polk County Enterprise, in 2020.  The piece stated that Tommy Lee Coleman, a DA, “assisted with the prosecution of Michael Morton.”  

Morton, who was convicted of bludgeoning his wife to death in 1987, was released from prison in 2011 after being exonerated by DNA evidence. The notorious case was wrongfully prosecuted by the Williamson County DA’s office.

Coleman did not literally work on the prosecution of Morton: he was not yet a licensed lawyer .

However, in 2011, while working in the Williamson County DA’s office, he was heard to say, in mocking tones, “‘Ewww! Bloody bandana! Bloody bandana,’ apparently commenting on the request for DNA testing, the opinion states. 



The question is whether the article accurately stated that he had worked on the prosecution. 

In an opinion written by Justice James D. Blacklock, the Supreme Court found that “the gist of the article does not communicate to the reasonable reader that Coleman participated in the initial prosecution of Michael Morton in the 1980s.”

The opinion continues, “Establishing the falsity of an allegedly defamatory article is not as simple as showing that the article contains a statement that falls short of literal truth.”

It quotes an earlier judicial opinion, stating that “A statement need not be perfectly true; as long as it is substantially true, it is not false.”

That said, editors and attorneys may not be comfortable with only the gist of an article being true. 

The court remanded the case back to the district court.


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