Defamation suit against People magazine heads to federal court

By Russell Boniface | Nov 12, 2016

BATON ROUGE – A Baton Rogue attorney’s defamation lawsuit against People magazine regarding a 2015 story alleging he murdered his wife will be heard in federal court.

The People magazine article titled "A Cold Case Heats Up: Who Killed Denise Porter?" recounts details of the unsolved 1985 stabbing murder of 20-year-old Denise Porter, wife of Joel Porter, then 27, now a Baton Rogue attorney.

In his suit filed in the 19th Judicial District Court in February, Porter, 57, maintained the story and related live Internet broadcast falsely portrayed him as his wife's killer. Porter said both the article and live feed defamed him with incorrect facts and innuendoes.

Porter sued Time Inc., People’s parent company, claiming the article focused on him while he had an alibi for the time of the murder in 1985. The suit also names journalists Steve Helling and Anne Lang, writers of the piece, as defendants.

Porter and his lawyers allege the magazine ignored evidence that he was at work during the March 14, 1985, murder and that DNA evidence recovered from the crime scene did not match his. Porter claims he found his wife dead the morning of March 14 after returning from work at a U.S. Post Office. The article also described the reopening of the case by the Baton Rouge Police Department.

Baton Rouge cold-case police detective John Dauthier wrote in a 2014 search warrant affidavit that Porter remained a suspect. The search warrant was used by Dauthier to collect a DNA sample from Porter.

Porter contends the magazine never spoke to him about the reopening of the case. He claimed the article also left out details of his wife’s extramarital affairs and that he wants the case to remain open until his wife's killer is found.

The case was removed from the 19th Judicial District Court by the defendants and moved to the U.S. District Court. Porter disagreed with the U.S. District Court’s ruling to keep the case in federal court and is appealing it.

“Defamation is always a difficult claim to make,” Dane Ciolino, a Loyola University- New Orleans law professor, told the Louisiana Record. “Here, the alleged defamatory statement does accuse the plaintiff of criminal conduct. Those will be treated as defamatory per se, which means the words themselves have defamatory results, but you don’t have to prove damages. However, what you do have to prove is that the statements are false and that they were made as a result of at least negligence.”

Ciolino says it might be difficult to prove from the plaintiff’s standpoint because the case is a matter of public concern. 

“Even though he [Porter] is a private individual, as a matter of public concern, the burden of proof against the defendant arguable could be higher," Ciolino said.

Ciolino said the case was moved to federal court because it involves People magazine.

“Even though the claim is governed by state law, the case can be heard in federal court according to diversity of citizenship federal jurisdiction,” he said.

Porter stated that the People article was “reckless” and “irresponsible.”

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