In the first ruling of its kind, the Tennessee Court of Appeals has ruled that prosecutors do not have immunity from these types of cases, and that they can be sued for defamation. Knox News reports that “although state policymakers — including the governor and government agency chiefs – enjoy ‘absolute’ immunity from defamation lawsuits even when they’re guilty, Tennessee’s prosecutors do not.”
The defamation lawsuit was filed by Gatlinburg Police Department Detective Rodney Burns, who is represented by Bryan Delius and Bryce McKenzie, against Hamilton County District Attorney General Neal Pinkston. Unless the Tennessee Supreme Court opts to hear the case, the defamation lawsuit will move forward as planned.
Why is D.A. General Pinkston being sued for defamation?
In 2015, Officer Burns gave testimony in a high-profile failure to report child abuse case involving coaches of the Ooltewah High School basketball team. During his testimony, Officer Burns stated that the accused students “drew no sexual gratification” from the act – but he also pointed out that proof of gratification is not a necessary component to being charged with rape under Tennessee law.
D.A. General Pinkston, however, ordered a Tennessee Bureau of Investigation probe into Burns, claiming he committed perjury on the stand. This investigation was covered by multiple news outlets in the area, which also reported “that Burns allegedly had testified during the preliminary hearing that the assault did not constitute rape because the alleged assailants were not seeking sexual gratification.”
D.A. Pinkston would not indicate how, but nevertheless claimed that Detective Burns perjured himself. This led to an unnecessary TBI investigation into alleged perjury that was never committed. It also did severe damage to Officer Burns’ reputation, which had always been considered stellar.
D.A. Pinkston tried to claim “absolute official privilege” to the defamation case, claiming he was entitled to the same immunity from defamation suits that was “granted [to] ‘Cabinet-level executive officials,’ including the governor and his agency chiefs” in a 2013 Tennessee Supreme Court ruling. Mr. Delius argued that prosecutors, who are not policymakers, are not privy to that immunity.
The Court of Appeals sided with Officer Burns. Knox News reported that D.A.s “cannot rely on the courts to protect them from defamation lawsuits if they use the bully pulpit afforded their office to badmouth citizens.”
Mr. Delius believes the ruling will stand. As he put it, “The job of the prosecutor is to pursue justice on behalf of the people vigorously but fairly. In doing so, statements outside of the courtroom that are intended just to soil the reputation of the citizen being accused are unethical and forbidden. In this case, those statements were defamatory and totally false.”
In the end, it appears Thumper’s mother was right: if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all. But on a more serious note, prosecutors should seriously consider their ethical obligations before recklessly ruining the reputations of others in the media.
Delius & McKenzie, PLLC offers comprehensive counsel to clients in Sevierville, Gatlinburg, Seymour, Pigeon Forge, and the surrounding areas in Tennessee. For more information about our services, please call 865-428-8780, or fill out our contact form.