Rights of missing man’s family weighed by Connecticut Supreme Court
By Erica Morse
Editor-in-Chief, Victims News Online
Published April 27, 2015
(VNO) — Earlier today, Connecticut Supreme Court Justices heard arguments from both sides regarding the issue of First Amendments rights vs. malice and targeting, as the family of a missing man continues to fight a judgement rendered against them almost three years ago.
In August 2012, a lower court judge declared that the mother and sister of missing Billy Smolinski defamed and harassed his former girlfriend by hanging missing persons’ fliers in and around her home and workplace. Damages of more than $52,000 were awarded to Madeleine Gleason; the case was immediately appealed by the Smolinski family. After an unsuccessful lower court appeal, the battle continued today. Connecticut’s highest court heard an appeal by the Smolinski family’s attorney asking for a reversal of the verdict, while counsel for Madeleine Gleason argued the decision was just.
Lead attorney Steven J. Kelly, representing the Smolinskis, told the court that the family’s only objective over the last decade has been to find their missing son (and brother), and that fliers were hung all over the state of Connecticut and beyond, based on specific leads provided to the family’s tip-line. Her son’s former girlfriend, Madeleine Gleason, contends the women harassed her by hanging fliers of the missing man near her home and workplace, in an effort to get her to talk.
At the core of the debate was one statement in particular — made by Jan Smolinski — that she intended to “break” Madeleine Gleason into divulging what she may know about her son’s disappearance. That statement, Steven Kelly argued, was an opinion formed by Mrs. Smolinski after local media coverage and by authorities reportedly referred to Gleason in police reports as a “suspect”. Kelly further asserted that not one shred of evidence exists that Paula Bell, Billy Smolinski’s sister, ever made a single statement against Madeleine Gleason; yet, she was still named in the civil suit. Gleason’s attorney, John Williams, argued that no proof exists that Billy Smolinski disappeared under suspicious circumstances, and no evidence that he is even deceased. The only issue which both sides agreed to was the verbiage of the fliers themselves; however, Gleason’s attorney argued it was the geographical placement of those fliers — rather than the “neutral” verbiage — that caused his client extreme emotional distress. He further contends Gleason was directly targeted with those fliers as a means to force her into talking about Smolinski’s disappearance.
The defense argued it has never been proven Jan Smolinski even made the alleged comment. Connecticut Supreme Court Justice Dennis G. Eveleigh raised the question of whether or not Gleason is or was a “public figure”. Her attorney claimed the local newspaper, The Waterbury Observer, acted as a “mouthpiece” for Billy Smolinski’s family, and contributed to making her a public figure. The court then questioned whether or not Gleason made herself a public figure by tearing down the fliers in the first place; or, if the police department’s reported identification of Gleason as a “suspect” contributed to her being in the spotlight. On rebuttal, Attorney Kelly asserted that Gleason made herself a public figure by “inserting herself” into the situation, and tearing down the fliers.
Both sides have completed their arguments, and a decision will be rendered within the next three to six months. In the meantime, Billy Smolinski’s family will continue to search for him, continue to seek answers, while praying for the verdict to be overturned. It was an uplifting day”, Jan Smolinski told Victims News Online. “Attorney Steve Kelly presented himself well, was articulate, and showed there was no evidence to prove accusations, just hearsay. We feel good about the arguments . When Steve walked out of the courtroom the people who came to support applauded for him. We had some great support”.
Today’s arguments in full may be viewed here, via the Connecticut Network. Stay with Victims News Online for updates to this situation.