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Jury Rejects Widow on Defamation

August 17, 1999

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) _ A television station and a sheriff’s detective were cleared of any liability by jurors Tuesday in a defamation lawsuit brought by a woman portrayed on the air as the leading suspect in the shotgun slaying of her husband.

Terri Stokes had contended that Anoka County homicide detective Tom Johnson, WCCO-TV and the syndicated TV program ``American Journal″ falsely accused her in 1994 of being the killer.

Neither Stokes nor anyone else has been charged in the 1993 slaying of Dennis Stokes, a 3M Co. executive, who was in bed at his home near suburban Forest Lake when he was killed by two shotgun blasts to his face. The gun was never found.

The case was closely watched by attorneys for news organizations, who saw it as a challenge to the freedom of a police officer to express his opinions and the right of news organizations to report on comments by public officials.

Johnson told WCCO-TV and ``American Journal″ in separate 1994 interviews that he believed Terri Stokes killed her husband. He testified during the trial that he still thinks she did it. WCCO’s report specifically said there was no proof of Stokes’ guilt.

Although the jury ruled in favor of the station, the detective and Anoka County, a majority of the jurors voted that Stokes had been defamed. However, they decided that the defendants did not knowingly make false statements or act recklessly.

``We won the heart of the case, and the heart of the case was whether our comments were done with reckless disregard for the truth, and they were not,″ said Jan McDaniel, WCCO’s vice president and general manager. WCCO is owned and operated by CBS-TV.

Stokes’ attorney, Joe Friedberg, said the verdict vindicates Stokes even though she won’t get any money.

``The jury found that she did not have anything to do with the crime,″ Friedberg said. ``If we tried this case for money, we lost. If we tried it for vindication, we won,″ he said.

He said he doesn’t anticipate an appeal.

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