LKL Transcript 11-30-99

"Star" suit
Posted by Gates on Nov-30-99 at 11:21 PM (EST)

KING: Welcome back to LARRY KING LIVE. On May 25th, 1999, the "Star" magazine printed this headline story: "Ramseys in Top-Secret Plea Bargain Talks as Evidence Shows JonBenet Was Killed by Brother Burke." That's May 25th of this year. June 22nd, less than a month later, this is the same -- the issue of the "Star," and on the bottom right-hand corner: "Plus, in addition to other stories, brother Burke cleared. We were wrong." And in view of that, a major lawsuit was filed today by Lin Wood, the attorney for John and Patsy Ramsey, on behalf of Burke, charging what? Saying what?

LIN WOOD, RAMSEY CIVIL ATTORNEY: Libel. This corporate conglomerate published vicious lies about a 12-year-old boy.

KING: That affects him how? There has to be cause and effect, right?

WOOD: It will damage his reputation for the rest of his life. And some time in the future -- luckily not now, the child has a great defense mechanism -- but sometime in the future, Burke Ramsey will look back, and he will know what was said about his family, but he will painfully know what was said about him.

KING: Had they printed a headline "We Were Wrong" across the top about Burke, would that have sufficed?

WOOD: It would have sufficed, potentially, to negate any claim for punitive damages, but a retraction does not negate claims for actual damages, damages to reputation.

KING: What was their source? Where did this come from?

WOOD: Good question, and perhaps we can ask the attorney for the "Star" when he comes on in a little bit.

KING: He's going to be joining us. He's -- you're seeking $25 million dollars in actual and punitive...

WOOD: $5 million in actual, $20 million in punitive. Remember that this is a multimillion dollar corporation, and the punitive damages are given to do two things: one, to punish this corporation; and two, to deter this corporation from ever doing this again to another child.

We cannot tolerate this type of viciousness and literally malicious lying about a child for profit, and this lawsuit is John and Patsy Ramsey's way of saying that they, as parents, will not tolerate it.

KING: Did they come to you right after this appeared?

WOOD: They came to me within a couple of months after this particular issue was published, and I have been representing them since that time. KING: Did you call the "Star"? Usually attorneys call first, you don't just file a lawsuit. Were there exchanges?

WOOD: Well, actually, in this case, Jim Jenkins -- who is the attorney in Atlanta that represented Burke when he was testifying before the grand jury -- Jim wrote retraction demands to the "Star," and that resulted in, ultimately, the retraction -- the attempted retraction that was published in late June, almost a month later.

The fact of the matter is, the Boulder district attorney's office on May the 20th in a public statement, very clearly stated that Burke Ramsey was not a suspect, was not even a possible suspect. Not one phone call was ever placed at any time before these issues were published, not one phone call was ever placed by anyone at the "Star" to the Boulder district attorney's office or the chief of police of Boulder to verify the story. If they had called, they would have known that these stories were false.

KING: Did you call the "Star"?

WOOD: I did not, no. It was time to file suit. That was my job.

KING: Do you know what psychological damage it did to Burke?

WOOD: Well, I think from what we know right now, Larry, that, as I said, a child at his age has a very...

KING: Any of his friends at school, and this kind of thing? I mean...

WOOD: Listen, as -- we will know one day exactly, I think, what this will do to Burke psychologically. But I think that so far we can safely say that John and Patsy have shielded him from a lot of this. What kids say to him at school -- I hope that he probably doesn't hear it.

KING: You're kind of a veteran of this, Lin.

WOOD: Well, a little bit.

KING: You represented who?

WOOD: Richard Jewel -- still do represent Richard in our war against the "Atlanta Journal and Constitution."

KING: And you won money from this network, from NBC, right?

WOOD: Yes.

KING: And your still in lawsuits on that?

WOOD: One lawsuit left for Richard.

KING: Would you say this story, in a sense, was in that league? WOOD: I think the treatment of John and Patsy Ramsey, and Burke Ramsey, is in that league. I have said before that I represent members of an exclusive club, and it is a club that no one else wants to join: People that have been convicted of heinous crimes in the court of public opinion by the media, but people who have never been charged with any crime.

I think we've got to make a decision as a society, Larry. We've got to decide that we give the media the right to inform us. We give the media the privilege to entertain us. But are we prepared to give the media the power to decide guilt or innocence? In this instance, the media decided guilt, guilt with respect to a 12-year-old child. I just don't think we can tolerate it. We go down that road, and we are literally all at risk.

KING: Now, of course you do open -- as your claimants know, the "Star" can now depose both John and Patsy Ramsey, and keep them there for days if they want.

WOOD: Well, days -- listen, there are protections for witnesses. We're in federal court, we have got some great judges in Atlanta. John and Patsy are prepared to answer any question that's asked of them in a deposition that is based on relevant issues. Just as John and Patsy Ramsey, by the way, answered every question that was put to them in three days of examination by the Boulder district attorney's office.

They don't have anything to hide, but they're not going to be abused in this litigation. We're not going to allow "Star" magazine, with its high-powered Washington, D.C. lawyers, to come down to Atlanta and abuse the civil process by trying to make it into a media circus, or in effect, to try to get information so they can go out and write more libelous stories about my clients. That will not happen in this litigation.

KING: We're going to spend some more moments with Lin Wood, and then Gerson Zweifach, the attorney for the "Star," will join us for the remainder of the program. Back with some more with Lin Wood, and then we'll meet the opposing attorney. They'll be on together right after this.


KING: A couple of other things just for Lin Wood and then Gerson Zweifach of Williams & Connolly, the Washington firm -- the high- powered firm that you described...

WOOD: High-powered.

KING: ... will join us.

Between the May 25th initial story and the June 22nd retraction story there was a June 1st story called "Inside the Twisted Mind of JonBenet's Brother." Is that included in the lawsuit?

WOOD: It certainly is: an article that basically conveyed, in its gist, that Burke Ramsey killed his sister because he had a twisted mind. You asked me earlier were there sources. Perhaps we'll get the names of those sources in a couple of minutes. I don't think there were any reliable sources.

This was done for profit. This was calculated to be done because Burke Ramsey would sell papers.

KING: And they've said in a statement we'll ask Gerson to comment on that no publisher enjoys being sued, but they're happy because they intend to answer the question of who did this killing and they're going to be involved, the "Star," in the investigation.

WOOD: Well, let me tell you: If they think they're going to come down to Atlanta and litigate the issue of who killed JonBenet Ramsey in a libel case brought by Burke, I suggest that they're wrong, but we'll see.

The idea that they would be happy to be a defendant implies that they must take pride in this type of a publication about a child.

Listen, we may disagree about what the media can say about John or Patsy Ramsey. I think the media has gone way overboard with those people in convicting them of a crime they have never been charged with. But I don't think fair-minded people can differ when it comes to talking about what was done to a child.

KING: Have we had any lawsuits by children?

WOOD: I'm not aware of any.

KING: Libel lawsuits?

WOOD: I have been asked that question recently, and I'm not aware of any lawsuit that's similar to this case.

KING: The suit was filed today, is that correct?

WOOD: It was filed this morning.

KING: Did you -- do you expect any settlement attempt here?

WOOD: I don't...

KING: From that statement, it doesn't sound like it.

WOOD: Listen, I don't expect a media defendant -- they've got unlimited resources financially. These -- as I said, this is -- American media owns four of the tabloids: "Enquirer" -- "Star" just bought "The Globe" for $105 million. These people have financial resources to try to wear us down, beat us down. But as you say, I'm a veteran of those wars. We'll be there when the lights are turned off in this case.

KING: OK. Maybe we'll settle it here.

WOOD: Well, if he's brought his checkbook and he's got the right number of zeros, we might be able to.

KING: Gerson Zweifach is the attorney for the "Star." And he will join us. Lin Wood will remain. And we'll be back right after this.


KING: Lin Wood of Wood and Grant in Atlanta remains -- from Atlanta remains with us. We're joined now by Gerson Zweifach of Williams & Connolly in Washington, attorney for the "Star," which on May 25th published this story: "JonBenet Was Killed by Brother Burke." And then almost a month later on June 22nd, the retraction, of sorts, in the lower right-hand corner, which "Plus Brother Burke cleared; We Were Wrong."

Gerson, why such -- what do you make of this?

GERSON ZWEIFACH, CIVIL ATTORNEY FOR "STAR": Larry, we're going to defend this case the old-fashioned way, which is we're going to get at the facts. Nobody has been cleared by the state. Nobody's been charged by the state.

What we -- what we -- what we know is this: The governor of Colorado came on your program a month ago and said this investigation was stymied and stonewalled. We haven't been able to develop a provable criminal case. We have an idea who did this, but we're not ready to proceed. But their investigation was stonewalled. Ours won't be. Ours won't be.

We're going to be able to do that which the state has never been able to do: cross-examine John and Patsy Ramsey about everything involving this murder, every inconsistency, every detail. And we're going to get at the facts.

KING: They can do that, Lin?

WOOD: You know, no, they cannot, absolutely cannot. There was a phone call placed to one of the criminal defense lawyers a month or two ago out of Williams & Connolly and this same type of threat was made. We can't wait for you to sue the "Star." We're going to take John and Patsy Ramsey's deposition.

Let me tell you something: John and Patsy Ramsey have been examined by some of the toughest investigative questioners in Colorado. Three days, answered every question, offered to stay and answer more if they wanted them to.

This is the type of tactic you see from the tabloids.

KING: So they're not concerned.

WOOD: They're going to come in here and threaten us. John and Patsy Ramsey are not going to be threatened. They're going to assert the rights of their son, and they're going to hold this tabloid accountable. ZWEIFACH: Look, it's very simple: The complaint that was filed this morning says in, I think, paragraph 24 that JonBenet Ramsey was killed by an unknown assailant. We're going to find out whether or not that's true.

Mr. Wood can't walk in and say, that's so and we have to accept it. We don't have to accept it.

KING: But...

ZWEIFACH: And what we were wrong about...

KING: Prima facie, Gerson: You're saying you were wrong.

ZWEIFACH: What we were wrong about -- we ran a story, as you see, that the state's theory -- that the state had targeted Burke. And we said we were wrong because the state came out and said, no, we haven't targeted Burke. And we said in words of one syllable, we're wrong. But that's quite a different question from whether they should have.

KING: You would agree that this headline sure doesn't look like the state. The headline is like "JonBenet Was Killed by Brother Burke."

ZWEIFACH: Well, what it says is that there were plea bargain talks going on, and there were talks going on. But if you go on and read what the retraction says, what the retraction says is the state has announced that it has not targeted Burke Ramsey. And we were wrong about that. But that is a separate question from whether or not they should have.

And so we're going to conduct...

KING: You're not even admitting that Burke wasn't involved?

ZWEIFACH: Absolutely not. We don't have the facts. The governor told you we don't have the facts. We're going to get the facts.

WOOD: Are you saying that Burke Ramsey is a prime suspect today?

ZWEIFACH: I am saying that no one is ruled out. I'm saying that the governor has told us...

WOOD: Wrong.

ZWEIFACH: ... that his investigation was stymied and ours will not be stymied.

WOOD: Wrong.

ZWEIFACH: We're going to conduct a full investigation.

KING: You're going to take this lawsuit and make it a story for yourself in a sense?

ZWEIFACH: We're going to defend it. And the way we're going to defend it is we're going to get at the facts.

KING: Because you don't want to hurt a 12-year-old boy, do you?

ZWEIFACH: No one wants to hurt a 12-year-old boy. But let's -- these are disturbing stories. But look at the facts. The fact is a 6-year-old girl was murdered in her own home with her parents and her brother the only ones there. The state, which has looked into it, has developed no credible evidence of an intruder. Something awful happened here. And we're going to look into it.

WOOD: Well, there's so much there. Let me quickly say this: No. 1, this is not a story about what the state felt about Burke Ramsey. This is a story based on alleged sources that Burke Ramsey killed his sister.

There's a paragraph in that story that says that JonBenet got out of her bed and went in and got in Burke's bed, and then his pent-up rage was released, and he physically assaulted her, sources say. Who are those sources? Tell us right now.


WOOD: If you want to bring some credibility to your investigation that "Star" magazine is now going to undertake for the state of Colorado, tell us then in your credible way who were the sources for this story. Here's your chance.

ZWEIFACH: Lin -- Lin, no newspaper burns its sources in the courtroom or on national television.

WOOD: I'd burn these sources because these sources were wrong.

ZWEIFACH: I will tell you -- I will tell you this.

WOOD: They weren't even close.

ZWEIFACH: We have said they're wrong, but what we're going to do is we're going to take on your allegation in the complaint that this child was murdered by an unknown assailant. You said it. Let's find out if it's true. Let's work together. Let's investigate together. Let's cooperate.

No one wants to abuse the Ramseys, but we want to cross-examine them. We want to get at the facts.

WOOD: You're for...

KING: You're not going to offer any settlement fee? You're not going to say, we'll give you this and let's let it go away?

ZWEIFACH: How can you settle the case when we don't know the facts?

KING: Because you're being sued for $25 million.

ZWEIFACH: Well, you know, it happens every day. People attach all the zeros they want. But what you have to do is if you have a story and someone attacks you, you've got to get at the facts. And the governor of Colorado has said they don't have all the facts.

One of the things they've never done is cross-examine these people under oath.

KING: And you feel they did this for money and they didn't mind hurting a little boy?

WOOD: There's no question about it. Other organizations owned by American Media are on record in tape-recorded conversations saying. we don't have anything on Burke, but we're going to write about him anyway because Burke sells.

KING: You have recordings of that?

WOOD:: Jeffrey Shapiro worked for "The Globe" -- I am sure this attorney is familiar with Mr. Shapiro, has those recordings, has written some articles published in "The Denver Post."

But let me say thing about -- just one second.

ZWEIFACH: Be fair.

WOOD:: You be fair about this -- Burke Ramsey, aged 12, has been officially cleared as a suspect. He has been officially recognized as not even a possible suspect, three years, millions of dollars -- don't attack this child again, stop, find some decency about making money and stay away from 12-year-old children. We don't need that in this society.

KING: I've got to get a break. We'll have Gerson respond when we come right back with more.

Don't go away.

This week on LARRY KING LIVE: Tomorrow night, we'll kick off our millennium month of guests with legendary talk show host Mike Douglas. And then on Thursday, Victoria Gotti speaks out about her family and organized crime. Friday night, Jack Lemmon discusses Tuesdays with Maury. And Saturday, Yoko Ono for the hour. It's all this week, 9:00 Eastern on CNN.


KING: I am personally going to invite both of these gentleman to come back one night, and we'll do a full hour on this.

In our remaining moments, Gerson, you've been accused of child beating here.

ZWEIFACH: Everything under the son. First of all, "The Globe" was acquired by American Media about a week ago, so the notion that whatever "The Globe" did should be chargeable to the "Star" and "The Enquirer" is just wrong.

KING: So, the suit isn't a against you?

ZWEIFACH: That's right.

But while we're talking about the tabloids, let's remember this. It was "The Enquirer" that found the picture of O.J. Simpson and the Bruno Magli shoes, that brought him to some measure of justice in the civil case. It was "The Enquirer" that broke open the Ennis Cosby murder case. So tabloids have served a useful purpose, served a productive role in major criminal cases, and that's what we want to do in this case.

KING: In the course of that, they shouldn't be allowed to go wild. I mean, obviously...

ZWEIFACH: They should do their best to publish the truth, to investigate the truth, but...

KING: In your opinion, was this story handled poorly?

ZWEIFACH: The facts will bear it out. We've already published an apology and a correction that the initial story that said he was targeted by the state, said it's wrong, said it in words of one syllable.

KING: Why didn't the apology make...

WOOD: For a variety of reasons, legal reasons, it was not sufficient. But let me just give you a practical reason why it was not sufficient, Larry. It's like yelling "fire," shouting "fire" in a crowded theater, and then whispering under your breath "just kidding." The damage is done. The whisper will never undo the damage of the shout. This child will live with this for the rest of his life. This story was picked up -- a story that he was the killer. It was in "The New York Post." It was discussed in two television talk shows on a rival network. Nobody picked up the story about this minute retraction. Nobody discussed the retraction on your rival networks. Burke Ramsey has been tainted. He is a child. What was done to him is unconscionable.

KING: Did you advise them on that retraction?

ZWEIFACH: We were not the firm that was counseling them on the "Star" matter when it came up, and the folks thought we should take a fresh look at it when we litigate the case.

But to be fair, the "Star" was not the first entity to look at the family and even to look at Burke and to raise questions about his role. Back two years ago in "The Denver Post," there was a story that contrary to what he apparently told investigators, that he was asleep the whole time, the 911 tape shows that he was awake at 5:30. So there have been a lot of media reports, not just...


KING: ... to everybody in this? Are you going like it's your investigation in a sense? You're going to use this lawsuit as a spur?

ZWEIFACH: We're going to do everything we can to find out who killed JonBenet Ramsey.

KING: And you should want them, in that sense -- if they accomplish that, it should benefit all of us.

WOOD:: John and Patsy Ramsey have some priorities in their life. They want to find out who murdered their daughter.

KING: So they should be...

WOOD:: They want to bring justice for what was done to their son Burke. They are willing and have always been willing to embrace legitimate, professional investigators. I don't think the "Star" magazine falls into that category.

ZWEIFACH: And apparently you don't think the state of Colorado falls in that category, because 24 hours after this child was found, they hired criminal defense lawyers, limited access by the police to them. The governor complained bitterly in his statements on LARRY KING LIVE a month ago about the lack of cooperation that they gave the state. So it's not just the tabloids that are unhappy with them.

WOOD:: Let me in fairness say I spent a lot of hours getting to know the Ramseys and getting to know this case. And I was watching Governor Owens when he gave this press conference. And I think you know what my thoughts were about that press conference. John and Patsy Ramsey -- let's look at the facts -- voluntarily gave DNA, blood, hair, voice samples, three days -- the -- I could go on for a long time about the list of cooperation...

KING: The conclusion just for this portion -- you're saying everything is still open in this?

ZWEIFACH: Absolutely.

KING: And you're saying there's no doubt in your mind the boy was cleared?

WOOD:: No doubt about it. The issues are going to be very simple. It's not going to be a carnival and a circus down in Atlanta, Georgia.

KING: Hope to have you both back.