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Jury awards damages to defamed former reporter

A jury has awarded a former Florida Today reporter more than $400,000, deciding that an editor at the newspaper and an executive with its parent company defamed her by describing her uninvited entry into a jailed murder suspect's apartment as a crime.

Kathy Reakes and another reporter were fired by the paper in February 1996 after they went into the apartment and took papers from the premises.

The civil court jury decided Tuesday that Florida Today's managing editor in 1996, Melinda Meers, defamed Reakes by telling another editor that Reakes was fired for committing "criminal acts."

The jury ordered Meers and Florida Today to pay $400,000 to Reakes, 45, of Melbourne Beach. The jury said Meers had no need to make the statement and that it was neither "substantially true" nor made with "good motives."

Reakes testified that Meers' statement and a comment by Phil Currie, senior vice president of news at Gannett Co., Florida Today's parent, had made it impossible for her to find newspaper work.

Currie, responding to a national media debate regarding the firings, said in a corporate speech that "newspaper people should not break the law" and two reporters "appear to be heroes for admittedly having done so." He said the speech referred to Reakes and John McAleenan.

The jury found that Currie's comments were "neither substantially true" nor made with "good motives," and ordered Currie to pay Reakes $500.

_ Wire reports