Topeka A Wichita television station that lost a defamation lawsuit for naming a possible suspect in the BTK serial killings told the Kansas Supreme Court on Monday that it did nothing wrong and shouldn’t be penalized for its reporting.
But the attorney for Roger Valadez’s estate, Craig Shultz, told the justices that the Dec. 1, 2004, report on station KSN amounted to defamation and outrageous conduct, as a Sedgwick County jury decided in October 2006. The jury awarded a combined $1.1 million on the defamation verdict and reduced the total damages to $250,000 on the outrageous conduct claim alone.
The judge set aside the defamation verdict but let stand the verdict of outrageous conduct.
Valadez died shortly after the jury’s decision.
The station wants the outrageous conduct verdict tossed, while Valadez’s estate wants the defamation claim reinstated.
Dennis Rader was arrested in February 2005 as the BTK killer and confessed to 10 killings in the Wichita area between 1974 and 1991. Rader, 63, is serving 10 consecutive life sentences at El Dorado Correctional Center.
Bernard Rhodes, a Kansas City, Mo., attorney representing the station, said KSN was correct when it reported Valadez had been arrested, his DNA taken and his home searched by BTK investigators. He said KSN also later reported that the police chief said Valadez wasn’t a BTK suspect.
“The overarching issue this case presents to this court is whether the truthful reporting of the name of a criminal suspect as part of a police investigation into a high-profile case can be the basis for imposing liability on the media,” Rhodes said.
But Shultz said the evidence “shows the shameful nature of reporting” that was done.
“In a sense, it was like a gamble. The press, KSN in particular, which gave up Mr. Valadez’s name, made a bet. They bet they were going to come out right, and they weren’t,” Shultz said.
The BTK killer — a name Rader coined for “Bind, Torture, Kill” — had terrorized Wichita throughout the 1970s and had taunted authorities with anonymous letters. BTK resurfaced with new messages in 2004.
Justice Carol Beier asked whether KSN had sources in naming Valadez.
“We had shoe-leather reporting. We did not have a source inside the Police Department,” Rhodes said. “We had people on the ground at the house who saw in the middle of the night police conducting the search.”
Rhodes said the station knew Valadez owned the house but didn’t air his name until it confirmed he had been jailed and a judge had set a cash bond of $25,000.
“Every other station in town was doing exactly the same thing. How can ...,” Rhodes told the court before he was interrupted by Justice Lee Johnson.
“That isn’t true,” Johnson said. “They weren’t doing exactly the same thing. They were not identifying Mr. Valadez by name. Your client is the only news media using the name.”