Sheriff Sued Over 'Moron' Comment
The News Tribune
December 05, 2010
LEWIS COUNTY, WA – A firearms instructor has sued Lewis County Sheriff Steve Mansfield alleging defamation of character after Mansfield was quoted in a June 2009 news story as using the phrase “What a bunch of morons.”
Without naming names, Mansfield’s quote in The Seattle Times alluded to allies and experts who surrounded Barb Thompson, the mother of Ronda Reynolds. He made the comment before a civil hearing in which Coroner Terry Wilson’s determination that Reynolds’ death was a suicide was ruled “arbitrary and capricious.”
Thompson at the time was building up for an unprecedented legal move that later persuaded a Thurston County judge to evaluate the case and Reynolds’ death certificate.
Marty Hayes, who was instrumental as a ballistics expert in the civil hearing, filed the lawsuit Nov. 24 in Thurston County Superior Court. He seeks a $250,000 award for character damages.
“What he said to (Times reporter Ian Ith) was an act of defamation; otherwise, I wouldn’t be filing the lawsuit,” Hayes said Friday.
On Feb. 3, Haynes filed a tort claim in the Lewis County Risk Management office explaining Mansfield’s “tortuous conduct” and why he planned to sue.
Mansfield said there’s a reason Hayes took so long to file the lawsuit after filing the tort claim, but that he wasn’t at liberty to discuss the matter.
“Anybody can sue anybody, no matter how frivolous” the lawsuit, Mansfield said.
In the tort claim, Hayes wrote that the “morons” statement was highly offensive and derogatory, especially given that the story appeared in several statewide newspapers, “further causing damage to my professional and personal reputation and standing in the community.”
The lawsuit also cites the Times article, which suggested that the sheriff characterized Thompson’s supporters as manipulators who had an agenda to embarrass the Sheriff’s and Coroner’s offices.
Mansfield was not sheriff when Reynolds, 33, of Toledo, was found dead in December 1998 on the floor of her walk-in closet with a gunshot wound to her head.
In the lawsuit, Hayes said Mansfield expressed interest in investigating the case when he became sheriff in 2005. However, the sheriff’s interest faded when Hayes ran for Lewis County coroner.
Hayes further states that his reputation as a ballistics expert and crime-scene reconstructionist was damaged by Mansfield’s comments in the article.
Mansfield was practicing free speech, said Bruce Johnson, a First Amendment attorney who is the author of Washington’s Reporter’s Shield Law and practices law in Seattle with Davis Wright Tremaine LLP.
“‘Moron’ is a classic statement of opinion,” he said.
For Hayes’ lawsuit to have merit, Johnson said, Mansfield would have had to have made a false statement of fact.
In fact, Johnson said, Hayes’ lawsuit could be overturned by the state’s new anti-SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation) law, which allows defendants to counter-strike a defamation lawsuit early on.
If successful, such a claim could fine a lawsuit’s plaintiff a $10,000 penalty and attorney’s fees and costs of litigation.
Hayes said he was not aware of such a law.
The Lewis County Coroner’s Office originally ruled Reynolds’ manner of death as “undetermined.” It changed the manner of death three times – to suicide, undetermined, suicide – over the years.
Thompson couldn’t find solace with that ruling, and in November 2009 she and a team of pro bono investigators, including Hayes, a forensic pathologist and an attorney, persuaded a Lewis County jury in a civil hearing to order that Wilson’s death manner for Reynolds was undetermined and was “arbitrary and capricious.” The jury also ruled that Reynolds did not commit suicide.