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Atlanta attorney L. Lin Wood Jr.’s litigation generally doesn’t do the media any favors. A rough-and-tumble libel litigator, Wood usually represents individuals who feel wronged by the media and are seeking, through the courts, to compensate for alleged damage to their reputations. But just days before Christmas, in a defamation case pitting two highly public figures — former U.S. Rep. Gary Condit and true-crime author Dominick Dunne — against each other, Wood secured a federal court order barring the writer’s lawyers from sealing his videotaped deposition. Condit v. Dunne, No. 02CV9910 (S.D.N.Y. Dec. 22, 2004). Wood is representing Condit, who sued Dunne for remarks the writer made about him and Washington intern Chandra Levy in the national media several years ago. In a 15-page Dec. 22 order, Judge Peter K. Leisure of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York determined that neither the potential threat of embarrassment to Dunne nor concerns that public circulation of the videotape might taint the jury pool were sufficient to justify “a bar on public dissemination.” Dunne’s deposition is not part of the official court record. Media experts call the ruling an example of what the courts ought to be doing with civil discovery, and they are applauding Leisure’s assessment that the information should be available to the public. “The judge seems to have embraced these principles I sometimes think are vanishing — that there is something to be said for public access and public oversight,” said Jane E. Kirtley, a professor of media ethics and law at the University of Minnesota School of Journalism and Mass Communication. Dunne’s attorney, Paul V. LiCalsi of Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal in New York, did not return calls for comment about the order or his client’s deposition, referring questions to Dunne’s publicist, Lou Colasuonno, who declined to comment. Wood did not return numerous calls and did not respond to e-mail inquiries about the deposition and the order. Because a consent protective order regarding discovery in the case already is in place, counsel for Dunne and Condit still could negotiate a deal that would shield the tape from public scrutiny. Dunne’s attorneys do have some leverage. On Dec. 8, Leisure ordered Condit, over his attorney’s objections, to answer questions, with some restrictions, regarding the former congressman’s sexual relationships. But Leisure noted that counsel could seal any of Condit’s depositions by mutual consent. RADIO INTERVIEW PROMPTED SUIT Condit, a former Democratic U.S. representative from California’s 18th district, sued Dunne in 2002, claiming that the writer had made slanderous statements implicating him in Levy’s death. Levy, a 24-year-old intern with the Federal Bureau of Prisons from Condit’s district, disappeared from her Washington apartment on May 1, 2001. As Washington law enforcement investigated Levy’s disappearance, “a media frenzy” ensued, Leisure noted in his order. That frenzy, he wrote, “focused in no small part on speculation about the relationship” between Condit and Levy. Condit was questioned by police but never faced charges in connection with Levy’s disappearance and death. Nor did he ever publicly discuss details of any personal relationship that he and Levy might have had. A year after she vanished, Levy’s body was discovered in a remote section of Washington’s Rock Creek Park. The case has never been solved. But the discovery belied certain statements that Dunne had made before Levy’s body was found. He made those statements while appearing as a commentator on national radio and TV talk shows and at dinner parties in Los Angeles and New York, according to court filings. Those statements, in part because of the notoriety of the Levy case and in part because of Dunne’s prominence as a national commentator and Vanity Fair columnist, were widely circulated in the national media and form the crux of Condit’s defamation claims. According to Leisure’s Dec. 8 order, while appearing on the Laura Ingraham Show, a nationally syndicated radio talk show, Dunne confided that a “horse whisperer” who traveled widely in the Middle East had called him about Levy’s disappearance. That man claimed he, in turn, had met an Arab at a party, an alleged procurer of young women for sex with Middle Eastern diplomats, who claimed that he knew what happened to Levy. Based on that third-hand hearsay, Dunne, on national radio, repeated what he had been told: that Condit had been involved personally with Levy, had broken off the relationship and then had complained to certain diplomatic acquaintances that he “couldn’t get rid of her” and that she was threatening to go public, according to Leisure’s order. Dunne didn’t accuse Condit of killing Levy, but during the interview he claimed that his telephone source accused Condit of prompting Levy’s disappearance, the order says. According to portions of the radio broadcast transcript quoted in the order, Dunne claimed that the intern was forced into a limousine, then flown over the Atlantic Ocean where her body was dumped. Even after Levy’s remains were discovered, Dunne insisted publicly that although Condit probably didn’t kill Levy, “I think he could have known it was going to happen,” according to Leisure’s order. In Condit’s suit, he claims that Dunne’s statements led the public to believe that the former congressman was involved in Levy’s disappearance and death. He is suing Dunne for $1 million in compensatory damages and $10 million in punitive damages. DEFENSE: LAWYER AIMS TO HUMILIATE Last October, after Wood spent two days deposing Dunne, the writer’s attorneys sought a protective order barring Wood from publicly releasing the deposition video. Dunne’s attorney, LiCalsi, argued in a written motion that Wood intended to release Dunne’s video “as part of his continuing bid to try this case in the press, not the courtroom.” LiCalsi also cited an Oct. 1 e-mail he received from Wood in which the Atlanta attorney had written, “When the public learns of Mr. Dunne’s testimony, whatever reputation he enjoyed will be lost forever in my opinion.” LiCalsi did not object to a release of the transcript of his client’s deposition. But he argued that the possible broadcast of “selective, out of context snippets” of the video subjected to endless replay on television was intended solely to humiliate Dunne and could poison potential jurors against him. Wood insisted in court pleadings that he never threatened to disseminate the Dunne video, nor voiced any intention to embarrass the writer. “If any attorney has attempted to try this case in the press, that attorney is Paul V. LiCalsi,” Wood wrote, “who has made a number of public comments about [Condit] and this case.” Specifically, Wood noted in court documents, Dunne’s attorney told the New York Post, “Gary Condit murdered his own reputation before Dominick Dunne made any of the statements that are at issue in this lawsuit.” Wood also labeled Dunne a “rumormonger and gossiper who willingly and knowingly spreads lies about other people for his own self-glorification.” The motion also said that, during the deposition, Dunne acknowledged that the “horse whisperer’s” story was false. Finally, Wood, in his pleading, claimed that LiCalsi and Dunne “should not be allowed to represent that Dunne’s deposition testimony resulted from fatigue, confusion and Mr. Wood’s allegedly bullying questioning style without the public being allowed access to the tape.” Dunne had made those statements in an affidavit he submitted to the court. ‘A MATTER OF PUBLIC CONCERN’ Leisure came down squarely in Wood’s favor, finding that the defamation litigation is “a matter of public concern.” “Dunne made public statements regarding a then-sitting public official,” Leisure wrote. “Those statements directly addressed the propriety of Condit’s services as a United States congressman. � [T]he underlying litigation directly addresses a matter of public interest regarding a congressman’s performance of his official duties.” Leisure also rejected LiCalsi’s protestations that Wood had intended to embarrass Dunne publicly and use the notoriety of the case to enhance his own reputation. Since suing the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for libel in 1997 on behalf of a former security guard that the paper linked to the 1996 bombing at Centennial Olympic Park — a case that is pending — Wood has been retained in several highly publicized cases. He has represented the parents and older brother of 6-year-old murder victim JonB�n�t Ramsey in multiple libel suits, among them suits against several tabloids and two cable TV networks. Last summer, he was retained by a woman claiming Los Angeles Laker Kobe Bryant had raped her. Wood is representing her in her suit against the basketball star. “The embarrassment cited here is only that Dunne’s videotaped deposition might be misrepresented by the media through the use of sound bites,” Leisure wrote. “The fact that the media may edit a tape that may or may not be released by the parties does not warrant a protective order barring all public dissemination of the videotape in this case.” Leisure noted that “the media frenzy” surrounding the Levy case has subsided. “While the court anticipates some initial media interest, it is also mindful of the notoriously short attention span of journalists with regard to the sometimes glacial speed of civil litigation, exacerbated by contentious discovery,” he wrote. Leisure also addressed the allegations in Dunne’s affidavit. In a jab at the defense, the judge suggested that Dunne and his lawyers had attempted to manipulate the court system to their advantage. “There is also a public and judicial interest in full and free dissemination of information that would shed light on allegations of improper conduct waged against members of the bar,” Leisure wrote. He continued: “Moreover, there is a judicial interest in ensuring that court processes are not used to unjustly attack officers of the court. By swearing to, and filing his affidavit with the court, Dunne attempts to slay his opponent’s counsel while simultaneously shielding himself with an order of protection. This manipulation of the court system cannot be tolerated as it creates a one-sided advantage on what the Court must maintain as an equal playing field. As such, it seems clear that Justice [Louis D.] Brandeis’ famous phrase is as applicable now as it was when quoted in New York Times v. Sullivan: ‘Sunlight is the most powerful of disinfectants.’” DISTORTIONS ARE THE ‘PRICE WE PAY’ “What a great ruling,” Minnesota media law professor Kirtley said after reading Leisure’s order this week. “We in the press can’t complain about this. The judge went through, I thought, a fabulous analysis of the importance of public access to information like this.” Calling the ruling, “a model of its kind,” Kirtley also cheered the judge’s “pragmatic view” of the media’s role. Leisure’s order, she said, recognized that while there may be some distortions created in media court coverage, “that’s the price we pay in a free society with a free media.” Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press in Washington, also praised Leisure’s order and agreed with his assessment that “this information should de facto be available to the public.” The reporters committee provides free legal assistance to journalists in the defense of First Amendment rights. But Dalglish suggested that even though a journalist is a defendant in Condit’s defamation case and Wood, Condit’s lawyer, “wants to give it to all sorts of media to trash Dominick Dunne before the trial � that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have a right to do that. It doesn’t really matter what his motives are. There is great public interest in this case. It involves very public figures and a former official.” Dalglish also said that if Dunne’s affidavit is accurate in saying that the 79-year-old was confused, exhausted and bullied during his deposition, “if the media and the public can have access to that tape, they should be able to see that. If Lin Wood was a bully, it should be pretty apparent.” Dalglish said she hopes the ruling in Condit will become a tool for the media in challenging orders to seal discovery. “It’s further evidence that there is a presumption that proceedings and documents in court cases are public, even in the civil courts,” she said. “That’s what all of this is based on — the presumption that this is a public court and the public has the right to know what’s going on.”

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