Murfreesboro attorney Greg Reed is suing The Tennessean 10 months after the paper erroneously reported that his shoddy legal work may have cost his client two years in prison. In The Tennessean's most embarrassing moment last year, reporter Margo Rivers and her editor became hopelessly confused when the state Court of Criminal Appeals overturned the conviction of Elbert Marable Jr. for aggravated assault.
In her Sept. 16, 2003 story, Rivers correctly reported that Marable's plea was not "voluntarily or intelligently entered" and blamed it in part on Marable's attorney. According to the ruling, Marable's trial counsel didn't provide him a copy of his indictment or inform him of the circumstances of the charge against him. He didn't really prepare for the case, and later, the trial counsel admitted that he made no effort to visit his client for seven months. Rivers and The Tennessean got all of that correct. Here's the part they flubbed: they confused the defendant's new attorney with his old one, naming Greg Reed, the new lawyer, as Marable's trial counsel.
In fact, Greg Reed helped overturn the errant conviction. Marable's old lawyer was the one who failed him. Reed, who was really the hero in the whole affair, wound up looking like the kind of lawyer who advertises on the back page of a phonebook.
The Tennessean later ran a front-page, 600-word retraction that, in addition to setting the record straight, also provided readers with Reed's life story. After the mix-up, the paper had to do more than set the record straight: it had to restore the man's reputation.
Well, apparently Reed isn't satisfied. Last week, he and his wife filed a $5 million libel and defamation suit in Rutherford County Circuit Court. The Tennessean, Gannett and Rivers herself were all named as defendants. Reed himself is seeking $4 million in damages and his wife an additional $1 million because she "suffered a substantial loss in the companionship and consortium of her husband."
Reed and his bride will have a tough time collecting anything. The paper's retraction was more prominent than its original story, and while the mistake wasn't good, nobody at The Tennessean intended to injure the reputation of a relatively unknown Murfreesboro attorney (which, in libel cases, is a crucial factor).
In any case, the lawsuit might force The Tennessean to answer a few questions. Why did the paper, for example, continue to assign Rivers to the kinds of intricate stories that stumped her in the first place? She cut her teeth at Davidson A.M. Was writing about traffic tie-ups on Hillsboro Road enough preparation to write about an intricate appellate case. (Rivers, alas, is no longer employed at The Tennessean.) Did Rivers' editorswho deserve most of the blame hererigorously fact-check her work when they noticed that she never managed to talk to Reed for her story? Did either Rivers or her editors receive any kind of punishment for their mix-ups? And, finally, why did it take The Tennessean nine days to set the record straight when it was informed of the error almost immediately after the story appeared?
Desperately would have liked to ask these questions to managing editor Dave Green, but he didn't return a phone call. He won't have that option if a subpoena lands on his desk.