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Georgia man wins $404,000 in Internet libel lawsuit

Updated: January 22, 2011 4:31PM

AUGUSTA, Ga. — A Georgia man awarded $404,000 in civil court is now behind an effort to make libelous Internet attacks a criminal act.

Each time he looks at photos of his fiancee, Gene Cooley is overwhelmed with loss.

It’s a pain compounded by the small-town gossip that followed his fiancee’s death, the vicious chatter that spread like Web wildfire.

“How can you get on the Internet and trash someone with no justification whatsoever and think you can get away with it?” Cooley asked.

Cooley’s fiancee, Paulette Harper, was killed Sept. 11, 2008, in Union County, Ga. Her ex-husband shot her before he killed himself.

Shortly after her death, a community discussion board lit up with wild accusations. An anonymous poster hiding behind six user names labeled Cooley, among other things, a pervert and a drug user.

It was all fabrication.

“I thought it was several people,” Cooley said. “I didn’t understand why they were attacking me.”

Cooley became the talk of Blairsville, Ga. He lost his job. To escape the Internet-generated gossip, he moved almost 200 miles away to Augusta, Ga.

But he didn’t surrender. He hired lawyer Russell Stookey, who used the anonymous poster’s IP address to track the name and then filed a lawsuit against Sybil Denise Ballew, a woman Stookey knew only in passing.

When asked in court why she wrote those things about Cooley, she said: “I watched him, and I can tell a pervert. Every time a pretty girl walked by, he would look at them. I get a feeling,” according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

A Union County jury ruled last week that Ballew damaged Gene Cooley’s reputation to the tune of $404,000.

“People who do this are mean-spirited,” Stookey said. “They think we can’t catch them. They strike and slither like a snake in the grass. We proved we can catch them.”

But Cooley isn’t stopping there. He’s working with a state legislator in an effort to make such false Internet attacks a criminal act.

“It’s a life-or-death epidemic, and I decided to live,” Cooley said.

He doesn’t own a computer, so he doesn’t frequent the Internet.

He has no plans to buy one anytime soon.

Gannett News Service

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