Magician defamed scientist, jury rules

A federal jury ruled yesterday that "The Amazing Randi," a magician, defamed a Finksburg scientist by calling him a child molester but the panel did not award any monetary damages.

The jury in U.S. District Court in Baltimore found that Eldon Byrd, 53, the scientist, suffered humiliation, mental anguish, suffering and damage to his reputation because of the false statements. But the panel found that he was not entitled to any monetary damages after hearing testimony that he had sexually molested -- and later married -- his sister-in-law.


Jurors deliberated over three days before they reached a verdict in the case that featured a plaintiff who dabbles in the supernatural, a defendant who debunks paranormal claims, and testimony on the mud-slinging battle between them that prompted the suit.

Mr. Byrd, 53, had sued James Randi, the magician, for libel, slander and invasion of privacy. Mr. Randi, 64, once a specialist in Houdini-type illusions, has made a second career of discrediting those who claim to have supernatural powers.


Jurors cleared the other defendant in the case, the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, which Mr. Randi helped to establish.

The case centered on false statements by Mr. Randi, who called Mr. Byrd a child molester in a magazine story and said in a 1988 speech that the plaintiff was known by police in the Washington, D.C., area as the "shopping market molester."

The magician's lawyer defended his statements by saying that Mr. Byrd was a child molester who never was convicted of that crime. The scientist's lawyer sought to discredit Mr. Randi by playing taped conversations of teen-age boys who called the magician's home allegedly for sex.

"I have been trying to figure out why Mr. Byrd brought this case," Diane M. Lank, the magician's lawyer, told jurors in closing arguments. "I've finally figured out that Mr. Byrd is willing to get down into the mud provided he can drag Mr. Randi down with him."

Jurors in the courtroom of Judge Marvin J. Garbis listened to intimate details of the lives of Mr. Byrd and Mr. Randi and those of a woman who said she was sexually abused by Mr. Byrd over a 13-year period beginning at age 12.

Ms. Lank introduced evidence showing that Mr. Byrd collected pornographic magazines of girls ages 9 to 16 years.

Mr. Byrd was arrested in 1986 in Fairfax County, Va., for child pornography and later pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor pornography charge. He never was charged or convicted of child molestation, but he was fired from his job as a physical scientist ++ with the Navy as a result of the pornography conviction.

Richard W. Winelander, Mr. Byrd's lawyer, argued that his client was damaged by the false statement. He said the magician knew the facts of Mr. Byrd's case after talking to a U.S. postal inspector.


Nancy L. Harrison, a defense lawyer for the scientific organization, said Mr. Byrd's reputation had already been tarnished at the time the false statement was made.