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Widow Sues Over Accusing TV Reports

June 22, 1999

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) _ When a 3M Co. executive was found shot to death in his bed, Detective Tom Johnson believed the evidence pointed to the man’s widow. In a TV interview, he called her the ``one and only suspect.″

Six years later, no one has been arrested in the slaying of Dennis Stokes, and the widow, Terri Stokes, is suing for libel in federal court.

This is a civil case, but it is likely to resemble a murder trial.

To collect the unspecified damages she seeks, Ms. Stokes has the task of convincing a jury of her innocence. The other side will be working to prove that all signs indicate she most likely killed her husband.

The trial started Monday.

In 1993, Dennis Stokes was killed by shotgun blasts to the head while asleep at his home in suburban Forest Lake. Ms. Stokes said she spent the night at her brother’s house because her husband planned to wake up before dawn and go hunting.

Ms. Stokes, 40, is suing over reports aired in 1994 by WCCO-TV, which showed Johnson saying she was the only suspect in the killing. She is suing Johnson, his employer, Anoka County, and CBS, which owns WCCO-TV.

Ms. Stokes reached a settlement over the weekend with New York-based King World Productions, producer of the show ``American Journal,″ which also aired Johnson’s comments. Terms of that settlement weren’t disclosed.

Ms. Stokes’ lawyer, Joe Friedberg, has painted her as a loving wife who put flowers on the table with dinner and who had finally found stability in her third marriage after having ``a couple of two-night stand.″

``The title of this case is `Terri Stokes Fights Back,‴ Friedberg told the jury in his opening statement. ``Before being falsely accused of murder, she didn’t have a reputation as a killer.″

Johnson’s lawyer, Anthony Palumbo, said the detective had good reason to suspect Ms. Stokes was her husband’s killer. ``As he sits there today, he still believes it,″ Palumbo said.

Palumbo said Ms. Stokes was evasive throughout the investigation, wasn’t forthcoming about extramarital affairs and was unhappy in her marriage. The lawyer also said the couple were having financial troubles.

Johnson and CBS are defending themselves by arguing that the accusations against Ms. Stokes are true, which means the case turns on whether the jury believes she did it or not.

A criminal trial requires proof of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. For the defendants to win in this case, the jury would only need to believe she most likely killed her husband.

For the TV station, the possible effect of the case goes further than money.

``The issue here for the media is whether and to what extent people can rely on statements made by people in the position of Detective Johnson,″ said Paul Hannah, a media lawyer watching the case. Relying on experts is something reporters must do every day, he said.

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