BURLINGTON – The former owners of WCAX-TV in South Burlington have agreed to pay a substantial out-of-court settlement for improperly showing the naked body of a brutally murdered teacher from St. Johnsbury Academy more than 3.5 years ago.
Richard Jenkins and his wife, Phil Ann, of Newport filed the civil lawsuit in March 2016 claiming they suffered severe emotional distress when the CBS-affiliate displayed a video of their dead, nude, adult daughter, Melissa Jenkins, during the 6 p.m. newscast Oct. 9, 2014. She was face down in the Connecticut River and held by cinder blocks.
The settlement for airing the disturbing video was “for a substantial undisclosed amount,” said St. Johnsbury lawyer Deborah T. Bucknam, who represents the Jenkins. She declined to say the settlement amount.
“We are pleased that we were able to reach a settlement with the defendant in this case. Mr. and Mrs. Jenkins have grievously suffered not only from the horrific death of their daughter, but from the additional pain of seeing their beloved daughter’s body on state-wide television,” she said.
“Mr. and Mrs. Jenkins can now achieve some form of closure to this terrible chapter in their lives,” Bucknam said.
Burlington lawyer Kevin Lumpkin, part of the defense team for Mount Mansfield Television, the then-owners of WCAX, confirmed Friday a joint stipulation seeking dismissal of the lawsuit was recently filed in Vermont Superior Court in Burlington. He said he expects Judge Robert Mello will grant the motion.
“We are pleased to have resolved this case with the Jenkins family,” former WCAX President Peter Martin said in a statement to the Caledonian Record.
“The station’s unintentional airing of the courtroom photo of Ms. Jenkins body was a serious error, and we took steps shortly after this event occurred to ensure that no similar errors would occur in the future. We extend our sincere apology to the Jenkins family and to the public once again for this mistake,” Martin said.
WCAX, also known as Channel 3, in its written response to the lawsuit provided a general denial to many of the individual claims made by the Jenkins family.
WCAX provided the pool videographer in court for the trial that day. Lance MacKenzie, a longtime WCAX videographer was working with former reporter Jennifer Costa.
Other media outlets, including WPTZ (Channel 5), Fox 44 and ABC 22 received the same pool video, but never used the offending pictures, court records show.
The news video focused for about 13 seconds on a still photograph showing a nude Jenkins and the cider block in the Connecticut River. The still photograph was among two displayed to the jury on a large screen in the courtroom on the second day of the trial.
WCAX has maintained the airing of the still photograph was an editing error and that last-minute steps had been taken to remove the graphic photo before it aired. Yet for some reason the old version – not the new edit — is what viewers got to see. The station has said the story was supposed to be the lead for the 6 p.m. newscast, but because it wasn’t ready and corrective editing was needed, the report was bumped to later in the newscast.
A new video expert retained on behalf of the Jenkins says the explanation provided WCAX to the public and in the lawsuit do not ring true.
Kent Rich of Granite Rivers Studios in New Hampshire said he had reviewed the production log and the timeline from the trial compared to what WCAX broadcast.
“Based on my review, in my opinion, because of where the two pictures showed up in the final edit, it would have been impossible for Mr. McKenize to ‘plug in’ the two pictures on the timeline without being aware of their content,” Rich said in a court affidavit.
“The final edited piece was only three minutes long so nothing goes in there by accident,” Rich wrote. He noted that video clips from different days had been used in the final edit that aired that evening.
The Jenkins also maintained it was avoidable because WCAX had time-delay technology “whereby it had the opportunity to delete obscene or indecent material prior to public broadcast,” the lawsuit noted.
Gray Television paid $29 million in June 2017 for WCAX, which was founded by the Martin family in 1954.
For more than two decades WCAX has been in and out of first place in its ratings battle with WPTZ for most viewers for local news in the Burlington/Plattsburgh, N.Y. market.
Costa and McKenzie were covering the trial of Allen Prue of Waterford, who was charged along with his wife, Patricia, in the 2012 killing of Jenkins, who was the mother of a two-year-old son. The son is believed to have witnessed the strangulation death of his mother, a popular science teacher and coach.
The murder trial had been moved to Burlington because the defense questioned whether the defendant could get a fair trial from Caledonia County residents.
As the news segment about the trial ended, then-co-anchor, Kristin Kelly, visibly shaken, offered a brief apology on behalf of WCAX to “Melissa Jenkins family and loved ones and to the court.”
There was a longer apology at the end of the newscast. WCAX and its then-News Director Anson Tebbetts offered several other apologies and statements through newspapers, social media and other outlets over the following 24-48 hours.
The Jenkins noted WCAX, after initially telephoning the plaintiffs to apologize, never contacted the family again “to inform them as to the results of their investigation or to inquire in any way as to their wellbeing,” the lawsuit said. WCAX in its written answer admitted no follow up conversation was contemplated or undertaken.
Jury selection was scheduled at least twice, but was postponed and mediation also was attempted, court records show.
Both sides have been busy preparing for a possible trial. Costa, MacKenzie, Tebbetts, producer Paul Crilly and director Corey Merrick were among the WCAX employees required to provide depositions – question and answer sessions furnished under oath.
The case received considerable national attention and became the focus of discussion both by journalism groups and for media ethics. The mistake generated scores of negative comments on several social media sites.
The Jenkins filed for claims of Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress (IIED) and Negligent Infliction of Emotional Distress (NIED). Judge Helen Toor had dismissed the negligence count, but the intentional claim was proceeding until the settlement was reached.
Toor noted that while WCAX did issue a statement admitting that the broadcast was a “terrible mistake,” she ruled it “does not negate the Jenkins’ allegations that the conduct was intentional or reckless.”
She said the Jenkins claim they have “suffered severe post-traumatic stress disorder, major depressive disorder, and generalized anxiety disorder as a direct and proximate result” of the newscast.
“A reasonable person could infer from the fact that the photograph of the body was aired that WCAX either broadcast the image intentionally, or intentionally failed to utilize its time-delay technology during the news broadcast,” Toor noted.
“A reasonable person could also infer from that conduct that WCAX acted with a reckless disregard for the probability of causing severe emotional distress to the Jenkins,” she said in her 9-page decision.