COVINGTON, Ky. - A judge has declared a mistrial after the jury deadlocked in the lawsuit filed by an ex-Bengals cheerleader against a gossip website that posted defamatory statements about her.
Sarah Jones, 27, was convicted more than three months ago of having sex with her 17-year-old student, Cody York. Now, she’s suing controversial Arizona-based gossip website, TheDirty.com, and its owner over lewd comments made about her online long before any accusations involving the teenager came about.
But after jurors told the judge Friday that they couldn't agree on a verdict, he declared a mistrial.
Jurors were deadlocked 9-1 in favor of Jones. The one juror who disagreed reportedly said the fact that Jones had lied about having sex with York was a factor in the dissenting vote.
The website said she had sex with Bengals players while working as a cheerleader for the team, and had sexually transmitted diseases. The website also accused the former Dixie Heights High School teacher of having sex with her now ex-husband in her classroom.
On Thursday, after a three-day trial against TheDirty.com and its owner, Nik Richie, the jury deliberated for more than four hours. They resumed deliberations Friday morning.
The jury’s decision could've had implications for other user-generated websites like Facebook and YouTube because it opens the door for users to sue sites over material posted by other users.
During closing statements Thursday at federal court in Covington, Ky., Jones' attorney, Eric Deters, worked to prove not only that the claims on TheDirty.com were false, but also harmed her reputation prior to when accusations surfaced that she had sex with her then-student York.
Deters added that even though Richie didn't write the comments about Jones, he had the power to choose what went on the site. TheDirty.com posts are generated by tips from fans who have the option to remain anonymous and Richie said he does not fact-check the posts because of the nearly 30,000 tips that are submitted to him each month for review. All posting fans, however, must agree to TheDirty.com's Terms of Service, which include not posting false claims.
The 10-member jury has the opportunity to change how user-generated websites function, Deters said.
"You can send a message across America," Deters shouted. "You are the first jury in time to do something bigger than yourself."
Deters told the jurors to “sock it to ‘em” and “shut the website down.”
The defense worked to prove that Jones has a history of lying, which makes her testimony not credible. Richie's attorney, Alex Ward, said Richie published the posts from anonymous sources without knowledge if they were true or false, meaning he did not show malice. Richie, in fact, didn't know Jones at all at the time of the posts, Ward added.
David Gingras, a member of the defense team, said blaming Richie for the posts is going against First Amendment rights and the Communications Decency Act. Although Richie added his own commentary to posts and approved them before posting, he is not responsible, Gingras said.
"Being rude is not illegal," Gingras said. "I will fight to the death on that issue."
During the trial on Wednesday, Richie said that the posts about Jones on the site should be treated like any other Internet site.
"I'm not doing anything that's not on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter," Richie said. "It’s all the same."
Deters said Richie worked to "pedal dirt" and has the authority to decide what goes up and what comes down. The ability to screen stories before they got on the site makes him culpable unlike Facebook and YouTube, Deters said.
Richie said his screening is an attempt to filter out outrageous claims and bring organization to the site that gets about 18 million views a month.
“I told you, I’m like a lifeguard,” Richie said to Deters. “If there was no lifeguard, you could throw anything into the pool.”
During the trial, Jones admitted to a history of lying. She said she lied to investigators, lied to her family, lied to Richie about her age and lied to York.
“TheDiry.com lied, but it is OK that you lied?” the defending attorney asked Jones.
Deters said her lying doesn't take away from the defamation of the site's posts, which Jones said caused her humiliation, devastation and made her want to quit her job as a teacher at Dixie Heights High School.
"Does the jury hate what TheDirty.com did or hate that she lied more?" Deters said. "It's really that simple."
Jones is seeking $11 million in damages.
In October 2012, Jones pleaded guilty to sex abuse and admitted to having sex with York, her 17-year-old student, while she worked as an English teacher at Dixie Heights High School. In exchange for Jones’ guilty plea, the prosecution dropped the charge to sexual misconduct. Also, the charge of unlawful use of electronic means was changed to custodial interference.
Deters previously said if the jury was hung, he would seek a retrial.
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