In a recent and rather controversial KIRO TV investigation, reporter Chris Halsne explored the "criminal record" of a Leschi Elementary School custodian named Chester Harris.
As Halsne described it, in a story KIRO still stands behind, Harris's criminal record is only one record long: a 2002 theft conviction. But Halsne then went on to tell the station's viewers about “six other crimes since 1997" that, as Halsne himself pointed out, Harris has not been convicted of. Those “other crimes” were displayed on KIRO in a gradually materializing list with handcuffs as visual accompaniment and a mug-shot-like photo of Harris. Again, Harris has never been convicted of those six other crimes.
“Arrests are not proof of criminal conduct,” said Mike McBee, Harris’s union representative at a June 16 News Council hearing into the matter. McBee also noted that Harris is African American, and African Americans are arrested at a rate two to three times higher than that for the general population.
The broader back-story on Halsne's investigation, and why the News Council found it "inaccurate" and in need of retraction, is here. But, as a number of people involved in the hearing process have pointed out (and as some of our Slog commenters have also mentioned), Halsne himself has a court record.
Neither Halsne nor KIRO have responded to repeated questions about that record over several days.
But Doulglas E. Stall, a partner at the Oklahoma law firm Stall, Stall, & Thompson, knows the record well, having twice represented clients who sued over Halsne’s reporting. In the first case, from 2001 and known as Mitchell vs. Griffin Television, Stall’s client was an Oklahoma veterinarian, Dr. H.L. Mitchell, whom Halsne had investigated over his treatment of race horses.
“In the Mitchell case, my client alleged that Chris Halsne and Channel 9 in Oklahoma City aired seven defamatory stories about Dr. Mitchell,” Stall told me.
“The case was tried to a jury," Stall continued, "and the jury awarded $6 million in actual damages to Dr. Mitchell; $250,000 in punitive damages against the TV station; and $250,000 in punitive damages against Chris Halsne. Both Halsne and the TV station appealed the verdict… My recollection is that the Court of Civil Appeals for Oklahoma upheld the finding of defamation with malice but overturned the actual damages for the verdict on a technicality.”
After that, Stall said, “the case settled before we went back for the second trial [on the proper amount of damages]. It was a confidential settlement agreement but Dr. Mitchell was very pleased.”
Court records (.pdf) back up Stall's recollection.
In the second case, Brain vs. Halsne, a Tacoma pediatric dentist named George Brain sued Halsne and KIRO in 2007 for defamation, after a Halsne investigation into Dr. Brain’s treatment of his patients.
Stall worked on that case, too. “Before trial, the parties settled the case,” Stall told me. “It’s mixed emotions on the part of Dr. Brain. He was glad that he felt vindicated in this matter and that the stories were taken off the internet.”
Chester Harris, for his part, said he doesn’t have money for a lawyer but is considering his options. “I feel used by a lot of parties,” Harris told me. “The KIRO people didn’t do their homework.”
Harris does appreciate, however, the “tremendous support from the people who I’ve worked with and known.”