Va. judge tosses defamation suit filed by ex-Parole Board chair

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — A defamation lawsuit filed by the former chair of the Virginia Parole Board against a Richmond TV station and one of its reporters has been thrown out by a judge.

Tonya Chapman filed a $7 million lawsuit against WTVR-TV and reporter Jon Burkett in March 2021, alleging that two stories Burkett published about an investigation of the parole board by the state’s government watchdog agency included several defamatory statements. The lawsuit claimed Chapman suffered “great humiliation” and injury to her personal and business reputations.

The stories focused on a 13-page draft report produced by the Office of the State Inspector General about the board’s controversial 2020 decision to release Vincent Martin, an inmate who had served about 40 years in prison for killing a Richmond police officer in 1979.

WTVR was the first news organization to report on the document, which contained significant differences from the final report made public last year, including a critical finding about Chapman.

Chapman did not participate in the decision to grant Martin parole. She said in her lawsuit that nothing in the first story explained that the report was a draft. She also said that sections of the draft report that dealt with her were not included in the final report “because they were not true.”

In her decision to dismiss the lawsuit, Richmond Circuit Court Judge Jacqueline McClenney wrote that Chapman has not alleged “actual malice” in her lawsuit. In order to prove defamation against a public figure such as Chapman, plaintiffs must show “actual malice,” that the defendant realized his statement was false or that he had serious doubts about the truth of his statement.

“Plaintiff has not pled sufficient facts,” McClenney wrote in her ruling.

Chapman did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the dismissal of her lawsuit. A message was left for her at her office in Portsmouth, where she now works as the city manager. Christian Connell, one of her attorneys, said Chapman intends to appeal the ruling.

“Sometimes cases take longer than expected. This happens to be one of those cases,” Connell said in an email.

Burkett and Brett Spain, one of his attorneys, declined to comment. WTVR News Director Sheryl Barnhouse also declined to comment.

The lawsuit sought $5 million in compensatory damages and $2 million in punitive damages, plus other expenses.

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