On Jan. 20, the University filed its response to the amended lawsuit of Dr. Stephen L. Morgan, the Cornell professor whose photograph was mistakenly associated with the alleged killer of Johanna Justin-Jinich ’10 in e-mails sent by the University to students, faculty, and parents last May. The photograph was also posted on the University website, and eventually began to appear in other news sources, including CNN.
In the amended suit, filed on Jan. 5 with the Middletown Superior Court, Morgan has claimed three counts of defamation per se, two counts of false light invasion of privacy, and one count of negligent infliction of emotional distress. Morgan’s attorney, James K. Robertson, filed a claim for a jury of six along with the lawsuit. The original complaint, filed on Nov. 24, 2009, had claimed only one count of knowing falsehood, one count of recklessness, and one count of negligence.
The University’s answer, filed by attorney Michael C. Harrington, includes five special defenses, stating that the University published the photo in the interest of protecting the safety of the Wesleyan community. The University also claims to have published the photograph within a limited scope.
Morgan’s amended suit includes a thorough timeline of the events that occurred after his photo was released on May 6, 2009. The suit also cites a conversation between a University official from the Communications Office and Morgan that allegedly occurred two days after the photograph was released.
“I was in disbelief,” the University official allegedly said. “I was reading your entire CV and looking for any clues about how you could have met our student. A Harvard grad working at Cornell? Coming to Middletown to shoot a student? Was he angry a Wesleyan class dropped his book No way, no way!!! It’s [sic] can’t be him!”
While the University admits that an employee personally compared a photograph of Morgan with one of the alleged murderer, Stephen P. Morgan, it claims to lack sufficient information to confirm that a conversation took place between Morgan and a University official.
Although the University has denied most of the allegations in Morgan’s suit, it has admitted to publishing his photograph on the University website and in an e-mail sent to the community. The University has also admitted to directing inquiring callers to the University’s website, where the photograph had been posted.
Morgan’s suit makes extensive references to comments made in May on the student-run blogs Wesleying and the Wesleyan Anonymous Confession Board (ACB), where several students quickly discovered the identity of Morgan, and reasoned that he could not have been the killer because he was “too old” and his picture did not appear to match the surveillance photo from Red & Black Café.
According to a Wesleying staff member, Morgan himself may have commented on the Dec. 2 Wesleying post “Other Stephen Morgan Sues Wes.” Listed as “Steve Morgan,” the commenter left Morgan’s Cornell e-mail address and claims to explain the events that led Morgan to file suit with the University.
His comment recalls a telephone call to Wesleyan’s legal counsel, David Winakor, in which he was allegedly denied a written public apology on behalf of the University.
“He refused to do so, saying that they would not be providing a written “mea culpa” because Wesleyan’s position was that they “did nothing wrong,” the commenter wrote. “It was at that point that I told him that I would have no choice but to hire a lawyer in an attempt to compel Wesleyan to write the letter and, failing that, bring a lawsuit against the University. He thanked me for my time and ended the phone call.”
The amended lawsuit offers a summary of the events described in the Wesleying comment. The University has denied these allegations, admitting only that Morgan requested an explanation of the events that led to the publication of his photograph. Morgan was unavailable to comment on the Wesleying post allegedly in his name.