Humble pie: How Sheckler got NBC29 to apologize
When Channel 29 news director Dave Cupp appeared on camera last Friday, he did something that had happened only once before in the history of the television station: He apologized.
For Jesse Sheckler, the apology was about three years too late. "That's all I wanted to begin with," he says.
Last May, a jury tried to give Sheckler a bit more when it awarded him $10 million, the largest defamation award in Virginia. [The case was the subject of The Hook's June 6, 2003 cover story: "No apology: How NBC29 got spanked."]
In November, a judge slashed the award to $1 million. And in January, when the two parties settled, Sheckler got a check for $1 million– and the apology he'd asked for all along.
The file containing Sheckler v. Virginia Broadcasting Corporation–that's the parent company of the station with call letters WVIR– is so large it occupies its own drawer in the clerk's office in the basement of the Charlottesville Circuit Court.
Sheckler's battle began in April 2001, when the station erroneously reported that police had confiscated crack and powdered cocaine in his Greene County home and business. Despite a call and letter from Sheckler's attorney, Channel 29 did not retract the story.
For lending money to a Central Virginia drug dealer, Sheckler was indicted for drug conspiracy and acquitted– but in October 2001, during his federal conspiracy trial, the station again reported that drugs had been found on his property.
Upset that even friends and family members thought he was a drug dealer because of the report, Sheckler went to see attorney Benjamin Dick, who called Channel 29.
As Sheckler listened in on Dick's speaker phone, station general manager Harold Wright announced that the station didn't do retractions. According to both Sheckler and Dick, Wright said that if Sheckler wanted to sue, he should "bring it on." In the defamation trial, Wright professed ignorance of the provocative statement.
"We were a little surprised he didn't remember that in court," says Dick.
"Arrogant," is the word Sheckler uses to describe Channel 29's position. "Harold Wright cost them a lot of money."
Wright did not return phone calls from The Hook.
After his initial euphoria at the jury's award, Sheckler says he felt wronged again when Charlottesville Judge Edward Hogshire set aside the $10 million award.
"The judge said in court that this jury had more brainpower than any jury he'd ever seen," says Sheckler. "Then four months later he changed it."
Hogshire gave him the option of either taking $1 million or having a new trial to determine damages, a choice that Sheckler brands as "blackmail" because, he says, "The jury would never hear all the damages they've done to me."
"I reviewed case law," says Dick. "In a lot of cases, the judge knocked down awards two-thirds. Not one knocked it down 90 percent."
He adds, "You have to congratulate [station attorney] Tom Albro. He did an excellent job. He talked the judge down."
Hogshire cited threats to the First Amendment when he set aside the $10 million award.
Sheckler contends the station's erroneous report and refusal to correct it were a threat to him. "What does he think it was to me and my family to see that on TV?" he asks.
Sheckler accepted the $1 million award under protest, which gave him the right to appeal, and his attorney, Matt Murray, believes the case was headed to the Virginia Supreme Court.
It was Sheckler's family who urged him to settle, according to Dick. "The kids said, 'Dad, we think this is hurting your health and causing too much stress,'" says Dick.
Part of the settlement stipulated that Cupp read a retraction and apology at six specified times: on the 5, 6, and 11pm news January 30, and three times during the morning news on January 31. "We're having it run at the same time the defamatory statements ran," says Murray.
The statement doesn't mention that the station paid a $1 million settlement, and WVIR's attorney, Albro, declined comment on the case.
Peggy Boland was on the jury that awarded Sheckler $10 million, and wasn't surprised that the award was reduced. "A lot of people on the jury wanted to make a statement about the media," she says. "They need to report things right."
The jury included at least one local media representative, Conni Lombardo, general manager of PBS station WHTJ, who declined to comment on the trial.
"The lesson in this case is the power of the media to hurt people," says Murray. "The media need to be more sensitive to the little guy. Jesse Sheckler was a nobody in WVIR's eyes. Human dignity has a great value in a jury composed of ordinary citizens."
Even after finally getting the apology and retraction he wanted, Sheckler is still upset about the faulty reporting. "It hurt me so bad," says Sheckler, "and then what the judge did, he hurt me again. He took a system I believed in and took justice away."
The suit may be settled, but Sheckler says he still has nightmares about the damage to his reputation and continues to take medication.
"I hope he gets healthy," says Dick. As a result of the Channel 29 story that he was a drug dealer, Dick says, "A lot of people he was close to turned on him. They still believe it."
Dave Cupp reads WVIR's admission that its stories about Jesse Sheckler were incorrect.
PHOTO BY LISA PROVENCE