Two men whom the New York Post labeled “Bag Men,” in a front-page photo shortly after April’s fatal Boston Marathon bomb attack, have sued the newspaper for libel.
The New York Post reported a few days after the bombing that Federal investigators were seeking 16-year-old Salaheddin Barhoum and 24-year-old Yassine Zaimi. The story ran just hours before the FBI released photos of the actual suspects. After the New York Post’s images had hit the Web, Barhoum and Zaimi went to the local police and pleaded their innocence. Law enforcement officials assured both they were not suspects in the case.
Barhoum and Zaimi had gone to the Boston Marathon as spectators. They left shortly after the winners crossed the finish line, which was about two hours before a pair of homemade pressure-cooker bombs exploded, killing three people and injuring more than 260. Like the rest of the world, Barhoum and Zaimi learned of the bombings on television.
The New York Post delivered a different impression. In its story on Thursday, April 18, the newspaper carried the “Bag Men” tagline to America. The article carefully stated that investigators “are circulating photos of two men spotted chatting near the finish line,” combined with a photo of Barhoum and Zaimi baring the tagline “Bag Men” — which packed an accusatory punch.
The civil lawsuit filed in Massachusetts seeks unspecified monetary damages and names the New York Post and five journalists as defendants. Barhoum and Zaimi accuse the newspaper of publishing “photographic images, together with false, inflammatory and libelous assertions concerning plaintiffs’ involvement in the April 15, 2013 Boston Marathon bombing.” The complaint generally sticks to a straight up recitation of the facts in the case. The New York Post is described in the suit as “One of the most widely circulated and influential newspapers in the country”, and the suit states that they acted negligently in their reporting.
The plaintiffs were not bombing suspects and were not being sought by law enforcement. As such, legally speaking, the Post was skating on thin legal ground by moving forward with the story and picture — especially in light of an early warning to all the news media, by Federal authorities, to exercise caution in reporting about this very matter.
Hours after the Post published the photo and article on April 18th, the FBI released pictures of two other men later identified as brothers Tamerlan Tsarnaev and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, whom were officially named as suspects in the bombing.
The two brothers were accused of having killed a police officer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and engaging in a gun battle with police in Watertown, Massachusetts, that night. Tamerlan, 26, died in the fight, while Dzhokhar, 19, was arrested on April 19 after a day-long manhunt that locked down much of the Boston area.
Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is now in a prison hospital west of Boston, awaiting trial on charges that carry the threat of the death penalty. And the New York Post, it appears, may be paying out big bucks for potentially crossing the defamation/false light line.