A New York Times columnist did not act with malice when writing about whether a former Army scientist was responsible for the 2001 anthrax attacks, a federal judge wrote in explaining his decision to dismiss a lawsuit against the paper.
Nicholas D. Kristof "reminded readers to assume plaintiff's innocence, and highlighted the fact that plaintiff was viewed by his family and friends as a patriot who could not have perpetrated the crime in question," according to the opinion by U.S. District Judge Claude M. Hilton.
The lawsuit, filed by Steven J. Hatfill against the paper in 2004, was dismissed last month. The opinion explaining the judge's reasoning was released this week.
Hilton wrote that although Kristof's columns identified Hatfill as a "likely culprit" in the deadly anthrax mailings, the columnist "made efforts to avoid implicating his guilt."
Five people were killed and 17 sickened when anthrax was mailed to lawmakers on Capitol Hill and members of the news media in New York and Florida just weeks after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
In the suit, Hatfill claimed that a series of New York Times columns falsely implicated him as the culprit in the case. Authorities have identified Hatfill as a "person of interest" in the mailings, but no one has been charged.
Kristof told The Washington Post in a story for Friday's editions that it was "terrific to have a judgment that protects journalism at a time when the press has had a fair number of rulings against it." He said he has spent hundreds of hours fighting the lawsuit.
Mark A. Grannis, an attorney for Hatfill, said the judge's opinion "is more or less what we expected, given the judge's earlier statements." He said Hatfill will appeal and "expects to prevail."
Kristof has said he never intended to accuse Hatfill but simply wanted to prod a dawdling FBI investigation, the AP says.
He initially referred to Hatfill in his columns only as "Mr. Z," and identified him by name only after Hatfill held a news conference to denounce rumors that had been swirling around him.
Hilton first threw out the case in 2004, ruling that Kristof accurately reported that the scientist was a focus of the FBI probe.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit reinstated the suit in 2005 and said Kristof's columns could be read as blaming Hatfill for the attacks.