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The publisher of a Lowndes County weekly newspaper in Georgia is unrepentant despite losing a public figure libel case. “If you use excessive force recklessly, without regard for human life, then you have committed murder,” said Alpheus Byers “Al” Parsons, editor and publisher of the Lake Park Post in Lake Park near Valdosta. “Basically, that was our take.” Parsons and his newspaper never backed away from stories that called Lowndes County Deputy Kevin Farmer a “murderer” because a man he had arrested in a 1998 traffic stop fell in a struggle to escape while handcuffed, hit his head on the pavement and died the following night in custody, according to Farmer’s attorneys. Newspaper stories repeatedly stated that the death was the result of a beating and identified Farmer as the perpetrator. A county coroner’s inquest ruled that Willie James Williams died of a cranial hemorrhage caused by a blunt-force trauma to the head, but that his death was accidental. The inquest panel, a Georgia Bureau of Investigation medical examiner, a county grand jury, and an investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice found no evidence to support any criminal charges against Farmer. Michael J. Bowers, who represented Farmer, said the Post ignored the official findings and called Farmer a murderer more than 20 times. Bowers, a partner at Meadows, Ichter & Bowers in Atlanta, was assisted in the case by associate Christopher S. Anulewicz. A Lowndes County jury levied $225,000 in compensatory and punitive damages against Parsons, the Post and columnist Charles Moore last month. Farmer v. Lake Park Post, No. 2000-cv-308 (Lowndes Super. June 21, 2002). Legal experts say the award is significant because libel actions against public figures are so difficult to win. The verdict is the first successful libel verdict won by a public figure in Georgia since 1986. Only four public figures in Georgia have won libel verdicts since 1980, according to Eric P. Robinson, a staff attorney with the Libel Defense Resource Center in New York. WIN CALLED RARE David S. Hudson, general counsel for the Georgia Press Association, said Bowers’ win is rare because “most public figure libel cases never get to a jury.” An estimated 95 percent of libel cases brought against the media by public figures are disposed of in favor of the defendants on summary judgment because a showing of malice or reckless disregard for the truth is so difficult to meet, he said. Atlanta attorney L. Lin Wood Jr., who has instigated libel suits on behalf of former Olympic Centennial Park security guard Richard Jewell and the parents of murder victim JonBen�t Ramsey, said, “If you have a public figure or public official case that you can get beyond a motion for summary judgment to trial before a jury, by definition, you have a strong and compelling factual case. … That’s the hurdle.” Sandra S. Baron, executive director of the Libel Defense Resource Center, said that data compiled by her organization suggests that while public figures have been nearly as successful in winning libel suits against the media as private figures if the cases actually go to trial, “Between post-trial motions and the appellate process, public figures tend to end up with fewer judgments in their favor and diminished amounts of damages.” Hudson recently questioned whether the Lowndes verdict will stand. “I’d be surprised if this is the end of it,” he said. “I feel certain there will be an appeal. If there is an appeal, this is likely the type of case that would find amicus support from the Georgia First Amendment Foundation or Georgia Press [Association], if they looked at it and found serious implications for other media in the state.” Parsons said he intends to appeal the case, which he insisted was prompted by Farmer’s boss, Lowndes County Sheriff Ashley Paulk. The Post has repeatedly criticized Paulk and called for his ouster. “In a real way, they went into overkill,” Parsons said of the sheriff’s office. “We’re a small newspaper, and the sheriff is very powerful here. … I don’t even dislike the guy. He’s personable, he’s nice. But he’s really vengeful, ruthless and tough.” Parsons said he believes the suit was intended to put his newspaper out of business. But, he promised, “We will bloom like the phoenix. Out of the ashes, we will come forth.” For his part, Paulk said he believes the newspaper’s attacks on Farmer “were attempts to get at my department.” Paulk also said he contributed to a fund that paid Farmer’s legal bills and he asked Bowers, an old friend, to help. “When my people are right, I will stand in front of them,” he said. “When they’re wrong, I have sent some of my deputies to prison.” DIVISIVE CASE IN LOWNDES Williams’ death in the Lowndes County Jail is perhaps the most divisive case to surface in Lowndes County in the past 20 years, said Moore’s attorney Patrick C. Cork of Cork & Cork in Valdosta. “In terms of testing the Constitution, testing the First Amendment and freedom of the press, it’s probably the biggest case we’ve ever had,” Cork said. “I argued to the jury, ‘Even if you don’t like Al Parsons, even if you don’t like Charles Moore, even if you despise them and think their opinions are off the wall and really weird … they do have that right to express that opinion.” Moore, in particular, has cultivated a “no holds barred” reporting style, he said. “After a while, you make some enemies, I guess.” 1998 INCIDENT The incident that so outraged Moore and Parsons began about 2 a.m. Sept. 1, 1998, when Deputy Farmer, then 25, spotted Williams, 48, driving the wrong way down a county road. According to Anulewicz, Williams smelled strongly of alcohol. He was slurring his words, and refused to give Farmer his correct name and address. Farmer handcuffed him, searched him, found his wallet, and discovered his real name. Williams, according to Anulewicz, was wanted on a probation violation warrant. But when Farmer attempted to place Williams in his squad car, Williams began to struggle, Anulewicz said. “He falls to the ground. Kevin helped him up. … The guy keeps struggling to get away.” Then, Anulewicz said, Williams ran. Farmer grabbed him in a police hold and shoved him to the ground. Unable to break a second fall because his hands were cuffed behind him, Williams struck his head on the pavement. The arrest and Williams’ falls were videotaped by cameras mounted on Farmer’s squad car and a second patrol car that had arrived as backup. Williams was transported to the hospital, where emergency room staff examined him and treated him for two broken teeth, an open head wound, abrasions and a two-inch gash to his lip, according to Cork. Then they released him to the deputies’ custody, and Williams was taken to the Lowndes County Jail. Twenty-four hours later, Williams had a seizure and died. According to attorneys for both parties, the coroner’s report determined that because Williams was a chronic alcoholic, his brain had shrunk. When he hit the ground during his arrest, his brain slammed into the front of his skull and began hemorrhaging. Because alcohol had damaged Williams’ liver, Williams’ body was unable to manufacture sufficient coagulants to keep the bleeding in check, a state medical examiner testified at the coroner’s inquest. Almost anyone else, even a 70-year-old man, would have recovered from the fall with little more than a headache, the examiner said. COCHRAN ASSOCIATE HIRED The Lake Park Post wrote little about the incident when it occurred, Anulewicz said. A year later, after Williams’ family hired a local attorney then associated with Johnnie L. Cochran’s Los Angeles firm to sue Farmer and the county, the newspaper begin its virulent attacks on the deputy, he said. Cork said it is important to understand the context in which the newspaper began its relentless focus on Williams’ death. “By way of background, we have had several alleged beatings that took place in the Lowndes County Jail,” he said. “Secondly, over the years there have been a number of deaths in the Lowndes County Jail. A number of people complained they didn’t have proper medical treatment in the jail, and there have been a number of lawsuits.” Paulk insisted those suits were “mostly frivolous. I don’t know of a major lawsuit we’ve lost.” The circumstances of Williams’ death in the jail stunned people, Cork said. The jail’s medical personnel and detention offices “let this fellow linger in a coma for several hours” in his cell. As he lay in a spreading puddle of blood and body wastes, jail staff checked on him simply by kicking his door every half hour, Cork said. “If he moved, he was still alive. Only when he didn’t respond did they call an ambulance.” By then, he said, Williams was close to death. “It was this attitude, that he was a nobody — it left a sort of a permanent stench down there,” Cork said. “If you are African-American, you’re poor, you’re old, you’re drunk, and you’re a frequent flier in our jail, you are nobody.” In addition, “The level of medical care was just not there,” Cork said. “That was part of the outrage also. It was this backdrop of mind over matter — ‘We don’t mind, and you don’t matter’ — that created this atmosphere. The line was drawn in the sand. “The official line on this thing was that nothing had happened, nobody was wrong, nobody had done anything. The GBI came in and rubber-stamped the sheriff’s initial findings. Everybody was in lockstep that this was just a freak accident, that this fellow had not been abused. … The sheriff made a statement to the Valdosta Daily Times indicating they were treating it [Williams' death] as justified. … The district attorney took the same position.” Then there were the videotapes. Poorly lit, often fuzzy, and shot at a distance, the videos surfaced publicly nearly a year after Williams’ death when his family’s lawyers began showing them at some of the county’s churches, claiming they demonstrated that Williams had been beaten when he was arrested. “Watching that video in its unenhanced state, nearly everyone reached the same conclusion,” Cork asserted. “Not just these two writers, but hundreds of people watched this video. Everyone would come away aghast. Very, very few people thought they were seeing anything but a beating that caused a death by blunt-force trauma to the head.” Said Parsons, “We wrote what we saw. … If you saw it, you’d believe it, too.” The paper noted the coroner’s inquest panel split along racial lines in favor of its white majority when it determined in a 3-2 vote that Williams’ death was accidental. Two years after Williams’ death, the FBI’s laboratory produced a digitally enhanced video made from the original tapes. That enhanced video clearly showed that before handcuffing Williams, Farmer had placed his still-lit flashlight on the back of his belt, where it remained during the entire arrest, Anulewicz said. The tape, the lawyer continued, proved that Farmer did not beat Williams with his flashlight as the Lake Park Post repeatedly had claimed. Cork acknowledged that on the FBI-enhanced version of the police video, “You can see what appears to be a flashlight on a sling at the deputy’s belt. Every time the deputy moves, it causes the light to swing back and forth. … But before the enhancement, almost everyone looking at the video concluded that you could see him [Farmer] beating Williams with a flashlight.” Cork said the journalists also came to believe that it didn’t matter whether Williams was beaten with a flashlight or his head was slammed into the pavement during his arrest. “Whether the rock hit the painting, or the painting hit the rock, the painting loses. He was still beaten.” Even after seeing the enhanced tape, Parsons still refused to retract statements accusing Farmer of murder. In an Aug. 3, 2000, column, Parsons wrote, “We repeat this now once again: Deputy Kevin Farmer killed Willie James Williams probably by slamming his face to the pavement twice while he was handcuffed behind his back and could not protect himself.” In that column, Parsons also needled Bowers. “Mike Bowers, the lawyer for Farmer, says that if we retract and pay their lawyers fees, all is forgiven. “We will not retract, and they will end up paying our lawyer because we got a better lawyer, Converse Bright.” Since the verdict, Parsons has become more circumspect, though he still insists that he was right. “We never made our case,” Parsons said. “We got screwed because we were indolent and cocky. … One thing I would like to throw in — that we woefully underestimated the talents of Mr. Mike Bowers … who did a masterful job of creaming us.”

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