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Hill v. Evening News Co.

August 26, 1998


Before Judges King, Muir, Jr., and Cuff.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Cuff, J.A.D.

[9]    Argued: March 11, 1998

On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Cumberland County.

In this appeal, we must determine whether a person found guilty by a jury of aggravated assault stemming from an altercation in which the victim died was defamed by a local newspaper when its report of his sentence recited he had been found guilty of aggravated manslaughter. On cross motions for summary judgment, the motion Judge granted the newspaper's motion and dismissed the complaint because the article was not defamatory.

The facts are not in dispute. On December 22, 1992, an altercation occurred between plaintiff Charles J. Hill and Charles Bryant in the Seabrook Homes section of Bridgeton, Cumberland County. As a result of the fight, Bryant sustained eight knife wounds. He died from a stab wound to the chest. Hill also wounded the victim's sister, Annie Mae Burton, in the fight. Hill was indicted on five counts: first degree murder of Bryant, second degree aggravated assault of Burton, third degree aggravated assault of Burton, third degree hindering apprehension, and fourth degree tampering with physical evidence.

According to the sentencing transcript, Bryant was the aggressor by assaulting Hill with a knife. During the struggle, Hill took the knife away from Bryant and stabbed him. Hill denied that he inflicted the fatal wound. He testified that the fatal wound occurred when Bryant fell on the knife while the two men struggled. A jury convicted Hill solely of aggravated assault against Bryant. The jury acquitted Hill of murder, passion-provocation manslaughter, aggravated manslaughter, reckless manslaughter, hindering apprehension, and tampering with evidence. The trial Judge dismissed the charge of aggravated assault against Burton. Hill was sentenced to a three-year term of imprisonment.

The Bridgeton Evening News (The News) covered Bryant's death and Hill's arrest, indictment and trial. The News has a circulation of approximately 10,000 and is published daily, except Sunday.

Hill does not dispute the accuracy of any of the stories published by The News concerning his trial and conviction. He alleges, however, that the paper's December 4, 1993 report of his sentencing falsely reported that he had been convicted of aggravated manslaughter rather than aggravated assault. The pertinent part of the disputed article is as follows:

Judge lowers Seabrook killing to 3rd-degree Cumberland County Superior Court Judge George H. Stanger lowered a second-degree aggravated manslaughter charge Friday against convicted killer Charles "C.J." Hill to a third-degree offense and sentenced Hill, a Bridgeton resident, to three years in state prison for the Dec. 22, 1989 death of Charles "Cocky" Bryant. (emphasis added).

Hill claims that The News published this report with full knowledge of its inaccuracies. Specifically, he alleges the article was inaccurate because 1) the headline erroneously labels Hill's conviction as a "killing," when it was simply an aggravated assault; 2) Hill was convicted of second degree aggravated assault, not second degree aggravated manslaughter; and 3) Hill is not a "convicted killer." He asserts that these errors impugned his reputation.

Soon after the publication of this article, Hill wrote to the paper complaining of the inaccuracies. He received no response. Approximately eleven months after the December 4, 1993 article, Hill's attorney complained in writing about references to Hill as a killer and demanded a retraction. The News promptly printed a retraction. Like the earlier article, the retraction appeared on page one of the December 23, 1994 edition; it said:

A Dec. 4, 1993 story in the Bridgeton Evening News incorrectly stated that Charles "C.J." Hill had been convicted of manslaughter in the 1989 stabbing of Charles "Cocky" Bryant. Hill was actually convicted of second-degree aggravated assault.

The story also stated that Hill was responsible for the death of Bryant. Court records indicate that no such responsibility was ...

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