Former Virgin Islands Judge Wins Defamation Case Against Newspaper and Reporters

On March 16, 2010, a jury in the Superior Court of the U.S. Virgin Islands in St. Thomas returned a verdict in favor of retired U.S. Virgin Islands Superior Court Judge, Leon Kendall, finding that Judge Kendall was defamed in articles published by the V.I. Daily News.  The jury returned a verdict in the amount of $240,000, finding that the articles were published with actual malice.  The 16 articles in question reported on Judge Kendall’s bail decisions involving criminal defendants and charged, in substance, that Judge Kendall released violent criminals out on bond and gave them the opportunity to commit further violent crimes, including, in one case, the murder of a 12 year old girl.  As a consequence of the newspaper’s allegations, a vigorous campaign was initiated in the community calling for Judge Kendall’s resignation.  However, the evidence showed that no history of violent conduct or propensity to engage in violent conduct had been presented to Judge Kendall at the time of the bail hearings.  In addition, despite Judge Kendall’s presiding over more than 600 bail decisions, none was ever appealed by prosecutors. Moreover, 98% of the defendants who were let out on bond fully complied with the conditions and terms of the bail orders.  The jury agreed with the plaintiff that defendants published false and defamatory statements with actual malice.  The newspaper has stated that it intends to appeal the judgment.

The case is the second in recent years where a judge has prevailed in a defamation lawsuit based upon media statements critical of  judicial conduct and overcoming the actual malice standard applicable to public officials.  In 2007, Justice Robert R. Thomas, of the Illinois Supreme Court, was awarded a $7 million dollar jury verdict (subsequently reduced), arising from critical statements appearing in a local newspaper.

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