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James H. Carpenter, Jr v. Colbert I. King et al

June 17, 2011


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Amy Berman Jackson United States District Judge


In this civil action brought pro se, plaintiff sues Colbert I. King, columnist for The Washington Post ("the Post"), for defamation. In addition, plaintiff purports to sue the newspaper's editor, senior editor, and owner, but he has listed them only as John Does I, II, and

III. Defendants King and the Post move jointly to dismiss the complaint under Rules 8(a) and 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Plaintiff has filed a "contra-motion," accompanied by his declaration. Upon consideration of the parties' submissions, the court will grant defendants' motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6).


Plaintiff is a prisoner confined at the Federal Correctional Complex in Coleman, Florida. His complaint arises out of three columns written by King concerning the death of a 29-year-old District of Columbia native named Keith Barnes, who was murdered by other inmates from D.C. while incarcerated in a federal prison. According to King's May 23, 2009, article, which was attached as Exhibit A to plaintiff's complaint, Barnes was serving a sentence for second-degree murder and conspiracy to commit armed robbery. He had entered a plea of guilty to those charges and testified against his three co-defendants, one of whom was James Carpenter, the plaintiff in this action.

King's first column on the subject, published on May 21, 2005 ("A Witness Pays the Price in Prison," Exhibit C to the complaint), recounts the fact that Barnes was killed in a federal penitentiary in Beaumont, Texas, and that he had long feared that his life would be in danger if he was housed with other inmates from the District. The column reports on letters written to the U.S. Bureau of Prisons on Barnes's behalf by the Hon. Eleanor Holmes Norton, the Congresswoman from D.C., and it tracked the history of where Barnes had been incarcerated and how prison officials responded to the Congresswoman's inquiries. The article does not mention the plaintiff, and plaintiff does not allege that he was defamed by anything it said.

The second column, "Death Sentence, D.C. Style," dated May 28, 2005 (Exhibit B to plaintiff's complaint), provides more detail that King attributes to three sources: a named Justice Department official who had been the Assistant United States Attorney who prosecuted the case, an unnamed homicide detective who was familiar with the case, and a spokesman for the Barnes family. The article describes the robbery and murder of Israel "Dog" Jones and the roles played by the various participants, and it includes what the former prosecutor had to say about Barnes's acceptance of responsibility and his decision to testify against his co-conspirators.

The column states that four men, including Barnes and the plaintiff, went to Jones's apartment to rob him, but they found the apartment empty when they got there. Plaintiff James "Rat" Carpenter was identified in the column as the individual who "ordered two of the men to go find Jones." Once Jones was brought back to the apartment, King reports that Carpenter "took him into the bedroom, brandished a gun, and asked him for the money." Barnes was frightened by the threats and was leaving the building when Jones was shot. King wrote that Barnes "agreed to cooperate with the government in the prosecution of others, including Carpenter, who was allegedly responsible for other shootings in the city," and added:

Carpenter, while in the D.C. jail awaiting trial for the Jones murder, was also charged, on Sept. 24, 1997, with the April 7 stabbing death of another inmate, 19 year-old Quan Levonte Harris, also awaiting trial on a murder charge. Carpenter pleaded self-defense and was later acquitted.

Exhibit B to Plaintiff's Complaint at 2.

In the May 28, 2005, column, King recounts his conversation with the prosecutor, Peter Zeidenberg, who was struck by Barnes's remorse and decision to do the right thing. Zeidenberg explained that the decision to testify "took courage because Barnes had received notes from Carpenter threatening him and his family." Id. at 2.

The third column, "Our Prison System v. the Terrorists," was published approximately four years later, on May 23, 2009. It concerned a plan then under discussion to house detainees from the military facility in Guantanamo Bay in federal penitentiaries. (Exhibit A to Plaintiff's complaint.) King was commenting on statements made by FBI Director Robert Mueller that detainees could radicalize other prisoners and pose a danger to national security, and he repeated the story of Kevin Barnes to illustrate his point that "[t]here's precedent for dangerous inmates getting their way in prison." The column noted, "[a]ccording to court papers, Carpenter wrote several letters to Barnes telling him he would be killed if he continued to cooperate." King also reports: "Last month, a Beaumont federal jury found Joseph Ebron of the District guilty of restraining Barnes while another inmate, Marwin Moseley, also of the District, stabbed Barnes 106 times." King notes that Barnes, his family, and a Member of Congress had placed federal prison authorities on notice of the risk Barnes faced from other D.C. inmates. He concludes, "If federal prison officials can be outfoxed by D.C. inmates, are they up to Al-Qaeda?"

Plaintiff brings this action in response to what he contends is the defamatory nature of the three columns, particularly the last. His complaint alleges, "[o]n May 23, 2009, King "wrote a resummation of articles . . . concerning a D.C. native named Keith Barnes who was stabbed to death in a federal prison[.]" Compl. ¶ 4. He alleges that King "named plaintiff as James 'Rat' Carpenter as finally carrying out the death threats" to Barnes. Id. Complaining that the columns were "slanted to make plaintiff more dangerous than all international terrorist, and above being controlled by the Federal Bureau of Prisons, the FBI, and any other law enforcement," id. ¶ 10, plaintiff filed the instant action on June 25, 2010. He claims that the "false" statements jeopardize his efforts "to prove in a court of law that he is an innocent man under the law [because] ...

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