A speedy libel trial -- but is it a fair one?

I've heard of speedy trials, but if it's any speedier than this case it's usually called a lynching.

On March 12, a little downtown newspaper called the Las Vegas Tribune published an article saying judicial candidate David Rivers had changed his name from Rios, had a history of domestic violence and "lies and drinks." Sixteen days later District Judge Sally Loehrer ruled from the bench that the paper had libeled Rivers, leaving nothing for a trial jury to decide except the amount of damages.

Then on Thursday, over the repeated and anguished pleas of the paper's attorney, Chris Rasmussen, who argued it would be impossible to adequately prepare in so short a time, the judge ordered the case to go to trial in late July.

From the bench, Loehrer noted that most cases in Clark County take 36 to 39 months to go to trial, but this one is on track to occur in four. "Let's try to be speedy, just and inexpensive," the judge said.

During Thursday's hearing, the judge kept referencing something called the Allen case as her rationale for moving so quickly with this case, as if Allen was a classic example of someone denied the ability to clear his good name prior to an election.

On the eve of the Nevada Republican gubernatorial primary in 1978, William Allen appeared on KVVU-TV, Channel 5, and was asked by William Hernstadt why his check to the station for advertising had bounced. Five long years later, the Nevada Supreme Court upheld a jury verdict of defamation. The opinion primarily relied on the rationale that the check was from his advertising agency, not Allen, and Hernstadt could've asked about the check prior to the broadcast, giving the jury sufficient grounds to determine actual malice.

It was a stretch, especially if you ask whether Allen had actually been damaged by the broadcast, in which he explained that the check was from the ad agency. On primary day, Allen got fewer votes than "None of these." Robert List outpolled him by a margin of 13-to-1.

Despite the judge already ruling that Tribune writer Rolando Larraz had libeled Rivers, Rasmussen continued Thursday to rightly argue that in libel cases involving public figures a finding of actual malice or reckless disregard for the truth must be determined by a jury and not a judge, as Loehrer had done earlier. (It's possible a jury might come to the same conclusion.)

"Because it is a matter of public record," Loehrer countered, "the birth and the marriage, they're public records, because they're easily accessible by anybody who wants to take the time to do it."

Easy? Try it some time.

"To publish without checking the public records is reckless disregard for the truth," she found. "Because you have to understand, that by stating that his name at birth was Macias your client has alleged that his mother was not chaste."

How anyone could reach a conclusion about chastity from the article in question still escapes me.

As for the allegations of domestic violence and drinking, both of which Rivers admitted occurred years ago, Loehrer simply took his word that this is no longer the case and harped on a present tense headline.

Rasmussen continued to argue his lost cause, suggesting a jury could look at Larraz, an 80-year-old Cuban refugee whose English is still "half broken," and find he was not reckless, just negligent.

In a sophomoric rejoinder indicative of a less than judicious demeanor, Rivers remarked, "And they are going to look at my 85-year-old mother and they are going to say, 'Wow, does this lady cat around?'"

Rasmussen continued to argue that he could not adequately be prepared for trial, taking the necessary depositions and working around scheduling conflicts, before October.

At one point, in explaining the lack of urgency, he threw his own client under the bus.

"Judge, it is ridiculous to think the Las Vegas Tribune is going to in anyway impact the election. ..." Rasmussen futilely pleaded. "The little Las Vegas Tribune prints 3,000 copies, is not going to have an impact on this election. It's just ridiculous to think so. I mean it's absurd. You've been in this town long enough. You've seen this little paper. Who reads it? A few crazy people that walk the street. And that's the honest truth. I mean there's not a lot of regular people, voters out there reading this paper. ... It's not going to have an effect whatsoever with this campaign. If anything, he's gotten a boost from this," largely because the Review-Journal has covered the case.

The judge would not budge, insisting the trial begin prior to early voting, which starts July 26.

It would be ideal to have a speedy trial that settles everything for the accused before voting begins -- so long as it is a fair trial for the accused. Not a lynching.

Thomas Mitchell is editor of the Review-Journal and writes about the role of the press and access public information. He may be contacted at 383-0261 or via e-mail at tmitchell@reviewjournal.com.