McLEAN, Va. – A federal appeals court has reinstated a libel suit against the New York Times filed by a former Army scientist who claims one of the paper's columnists unfairly linked him to the deadly anthrax (search) mailings in 2001.
Steven Hatfill (search) sued the Times for a series of columns written by Nicholas Kristof (search) that faulted the FBI for failing to thoroughly investigate Hatfill for the anthrax mailings that left five people dead.
The initial columns identified Hatfill only as "Mr. Z," but subsequent columns named him after Hatfill stepped forward to deny any role in the killings. Federal authorities labeled Hatfill "a person of interest" in their investigation.
Last year, a federal judge tossed out Hatfill's lawsuit, ruling that the columns did not defame Hatfill and accurately reflected the state of the FBI's investigation.
But the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond overturned the rule Thursday on a 2-1 vote, saying that Kristof's columns, taken as a whole, might be considered defamatory.
"A reasonable reader of Kristof's columns likely would conclude that Hatfill was responsible for the anthrax mailings," wrote Judge Dennis Shedd in an opinion joined by Chief Judge William Wilkins.
The ruling sends the case back to U.S. District Court in Alexandria for trial.
Thomas Connolly, a lawyer for Hatfill, said that "Dr. Hatfill is pleased with the ruling and looking forward to his day in court." A physician and bioterrorism expert, Hatfill worked in the late 1990s at the Army's infectious disease laboratory at Fort Detrick, Md.
Toby Usnik, a spokesman for the Times, said the newspaper was disappointed with the decision, "but we remain confident in our case."
"Mr. Kristof's columns were fair and accurate, and we continue to believe that newspapers need to be able to comment on how investigations — especially one as important as this — are being conducted."
Thursday's ruling acknowledged that Kristof's columns included assertions that Hatfill enjoys a presumption of innocence. But Kristof also included charges that Hatfill failed polygraph examinations, that bloodhounds responded to Hatfill and his apartment, and that Hatfill was a prime suspect within the biodefense community itself.
"In describing all this evidence, Kristof's columns did not merely report others' suspicions of Hatfill; they actually generated suspicion by asserting facts that tend to implicate him in the anthrax murders," the ruling said.
The ruling disputed the lower court judge's assertion that the articles accurately reflected the state of the government's investigation, saying there is no evidence thus far to determine whether the columns were in sync with the FBI probe.
Circuit Judge Paul Niemeyer dissented from the decision.
"Nowhere does any column accuse Dr. Hatfill of committing the murders," he wrote. "The columns' purpose was to put into operation prosecutorial machinery that would determine whether Dr. Hatfill committed the crimes."
Hatfill also has filed a defamation suit against former Attorney General John Ashcroft and other government authorities. The suit is awaiting trial.