By Alan Bean
This is a story about the limits of free speech on the internet, but it is goes much deeper than that. This is also about what happens when a small town defense attorney challenges the local power structure.
Vergil Richardson, a basketball coach in nearby Texarkana, lost his job the moment charges were filed. He hired Mark Lesher, a local attorney with a reputation for independent judgment, to represent him.
The following year, Robert Bridges, the man responsible for arresting the Richardsons, made a run for sheriff. Mark and Rhonda Lesher supported Bridges’ opponent, Royce Abbot, and used the Richardson raid as an example of the cowboy tactics routinely employed by Bridges and the rest of the local law enforcement establishment.
That’s when the nasty emails began to appear on Red River County’s Topix site. The Leshers were accused of every low down, nasty deed imaginable. The message was simple: Do you want to vote for Royce Abbott, the man who pals around with drug-dealing rapists?
The tactic was as successful as it was vicious; Bridges won the election.
The Richardsons were vindicated almost exactly three years after their ordeal began. The delay was created when Judge John Miller, a close friend of County Attorney Val Varley, refused to recuse himself from the case. Only when the Texas Attorney General’s Office took over the prosecution from Mr. Varley was Miller forced to step aside. Eventually, an obvious injustice was belatedly averted.
Yesterday’s ruling brings full vindication to a couple who, like the Richardsons, have seen their reputations reduced to smoke and ashes. Unless you practice law in a small town, it is difficult to appreciate the pressure placed on defense attorneys to conform to the judicial status quo. When the legal system is in the hands of responsible individuals the pressure to go along to get along is manageable. But when knaves and fools take the reins, defense attorneys like Mark Lesher have hard ethical decisions to make and, to the eternal chagrin of their clients, often take the coward’s way out.
The Leshers have paid an incalculable price for standing up to lawlessness, but that just makes their vindication twice as sweet. The $13.78 million awarded by a Tarrant County jury yesterday is the largest actual damages award in an internet libel case in American history.
Hopefully, this cautionary tale will now receive the media attention it so richly deserves. Apart from NPR’s Wade Goodwyn, the Richardson-Lesher ordeal has generally been ignored by the mainstream press, which explains why if you Google the case, you mainly get old Friends of Justice blog posts. Hopefully, that will soon change.
By Mitch Mitchell
FORT WORTH — First, a woman accused Mark and Rhonda Lesher and one of their employees of raping her.
Then, the same woman and her husband, along with two of their employees, instigated an online smear campaign designed to ruin the Leshers’ reputations, according to two juries.
On Friday, three years after a Collin County jury acquitted the Leshers and their employee of aggravated sexual assault, a Tarrant County jury awarded the couple $13.78 million in a libel judgment. The ruling sends the message that people have the freedom to write what they please online, but they can be held accountable.
The award is the largest ever assessed in an Internet libel case, the Leshers’ attorney, Meagan Hassan, said Tuesday.
The defendants — Shannon and Gerald Coyel, and Charlie and Pat Doescher of Kennedale, who worked for the Coyels — were ordered to pay shares of the award.
“This was clearly a vendetta,” Hassan said. “We originally sued 178 John and Jane Does, and it all came down to two IP addresses.”
A woman who identified herself as Pat Doescher on the telephone declined to comment Tuesday, saying her attorney had instructed her not to talk about the case. Gerald Doescher, the Coyels and their attorney could not be reached to comment.
Thousands of posts
According to the lawsuit, Shannon Coyel, a former client of Mark Lesher, who was then an attorney in Clarksville in East Texas, accused the Leshers and one of their employees of sexually assaulting her. The trial was moved to Collin County on a change of venue because of pre-trial publicity, and the jury acquitted all three on Jan. 15, 2009.
Meanwhile, scurrilous comments referring to the Leshers and their businesses were appearing on Topix, an online community bulletin board.
One comment that referred to Rhonda Lesher’s beauty salon said: “You get throwed, blowed, bit, sucked, Herpies, and your hair done all at the same place, ‘YUCK’!!!!!!!!” according to the lawsuit.
“During the criminal trial, Mrs. Lesher testified to the fact that these rumors and comments have changed her life, stating, ‘I will never be the same. You can’t imagine what it is like going to a grocery store and facing anyone who knows about these charges,'” the lawsuit stated.
The abuse grew so bad that the Leshers closed their businesses and moved away from Clarksville, where they had lived for more than 20 years, Hassan said. Mark Lesher now practices law in Mount Pleasant and Texarkana, and his wife has given up her salon.
Hassan said she and her legal partners compiled more than 25,000 instances of libelous online posts on Topix that accused her clients of engaging in sexual perversions and molestations, drug dealing and other criminal behavior.
But in court, they introduced only 800 of the worst, Hassan said.
“No one who has ever read the comments has argued that they were reasonable or rational,” Hassan said. “This is a good case to show just how bad things can get online.”
The case was tried in Tarrant County because one of the IP addresses was at a residence in the county.
The McClatchy Co., which owns the Star-Telegram, owns an 11.25 percent share of Topix.
The case shows that those who libel others online and rely on Internet service providers or hosting companies to protect their identities are out of touch with the times, legal scholars said.
“I think you are starting to see a real disconnect between perception and the legal and technical realities,” said Brian Holland, a law professor at Texas Wesleyan University. “The illusion of anonymity is not technically correct because they have a way to trace you, and it’s not legally correct because the courts will not always back you up and you might not be aware of the proceedings.”
Topix initially fought a subpoena for the Internet Protocol addresses of the people posting comments about the Leshers, but a judge forced the company to hand over the information, Hassan said.
Many service agreements that Internet service providers use, and that most people do not read, prohibit the posting of anything that is libelous or slanderous, said Peter Vogel, a partner at the Gardere law firm in Dallas.
“This case proves that you just can’t say bad things about someone without any consequences,” Vogel said. “I never put anything in an e-mail or posts that I would not want a jury to see.”
Mitch Mitchell, 817-390-7752