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Nashua newspaper did not defame prisoner, Supreme Court rules

New Hampshire Union Leader

February 26. 2013 10:36AM

A Nashua newspaper did not defame a prisoner when it mistakenly reported he testified against a co-defendant, a mistake the inmate says resulted in his being beaten by fellow prisoners for being a "rat," according to a Supreme Court ruling.

The court said The Telegraph and its reporter, Andrew Wolfe, did not libel prisoner Paul Sanguedolce, 39, formerly of Sanford, Maine, and concluded the "untrue statement that the plaintiff testified against his criminal associate cannot be reasonably construed as defamatory."

However, the case is not over yet because the court also ruled Sanguedolce may be able to make a negligence claim against the newspaper and referred the case back to the lower court for further proceedings.

Sanguedolce, 39, pleaded guilty in Hillsborough County Superior Court, Southern District, to burglary in connection with a March 2008 home invasion in which an elderly man was tied up and robbed. He was sentenced to 3 to 8 years in the New Hampshire State Prison for Men in Concord. His minimum sentence is up on Aug. 3 although his maximum sentence ends on Aug. 2, 2018.

Wolfe, in an April 21, 2011, article about Sanguedolce's co-defendant Peter Gibbs, wrote that Sanguedolce "testified against" Gibbs at his trial. Sanguedolce did not testify against him, according to the Supreme Court. The newspaper subsequently ran a correction.

Sanguedolce argued that Telegraph readers could find that he, in testifying against Gibbs, had acted as a "rat," "tattletale," "snitch," or had committed perjury or "cut a deal" in exchange for leniency. He contended society often associates informants with disloyalty, betrayal and self-interest, and relies on a body of commentary highlighting that informants are often derided and loathed by society for those attributes.

The court said there may be some elements in our society, prisoners in particular, who would look unkindly on those who willingly cooperate with the authorities in apprehending or convicting a criminal.

"The prevailing view among law-abiding citizens, however, is that such conduct reflects good moral character, respect for the rule of law, a willingness to place the interests of truth, justice, and the social order above one's own self interest or petty loyalties," the court said.

Citing Connelly vs. McKay (Sup. Ct 1941), the court said, "To hold otherwise would be contrary to the public interest in that it would penalize the law-abiding citizen and give comfort to the law violator."

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