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Carroll O'Connor: 'I knew a jury would back me up'

Carroll O'Connor

Actor wins slander suit filed by dead son's drug supplier

July 25, 1997
Web posted at: 6:16 p.m. EDT (2216 GMT)

LOS ANGELES (CNN) -- An emotional Carroll O'Connor thanked jurors who Friday rejected a slander claim brought against the television actor by an admitted drug supplier whom O'Connor publicly blamed for his son's suicide.

"You did a great job. It cost me a bundle, but I was willing to spend the dough," a tearful O'Connor told jurors, interrupting their news conference. "I knew a jury wasn't going to say I was wrong. I knew a jury would back me up, and you did."

Carroll O' Connor and his family comment on the jury's verdict
icon 15 min., 9 sec. VXtreme streaming video

Songwriter Harry Perzigian sued O'Connor for statements he made after the death of his son Hugh in March 1995, including his description of Perzigian as "a partner in murder."

Perzigian admitted he had supplied drugs to the younger O'Connor, who had waged a long battle against drug and alcohol abuse before taking his life, and he served a brief jail sentence for supplying Hugh O'Connor with cocaine.

However, Perzigian has denied charges that he was a drug dealer, describing himself as a friend who occasionally shared drugs with Hugh O'Connor. He denied supplying the younger O'Connor with drugs on the night he killed himself.

But jurors said they, too, thought Perzigian bore some responsibility for Hugh O'Connor's death and were clearly unsympathetic to Perzigian's claims that Carroll O'Connor had behaved outrageously, and had maliciously defamed him.

"A drug dealer's a drug dealer," said one woman juror.

Speaking to reporters later, O'Connor said, "The message that they sent was that, as ordinary people, they probably would have done and said the same things I said."

An angry Perzigian said, "It shows L.A. loves celebrities. You're not going to get a fair shake in L.A. if you sue a celebrity."icon (468K/21 sec. AIFF or WAV sound)

But he said he was glad he filed the lawsuit: "I've exposed Carroll O'Connor as the hateful, vengeful person he is."

O'Connor's public offensive heart of suit

After his son's death, O'Connor, known for his roles on the television shows "All in the Family" and "In The Heat of the Night," went on a public offensive against Perzigian.

He called him a "sleazeball," gave out his address and showed his photo on TV and said, "I want to hurt him in the worst way." He even dared Perzigian to sue him for slander.

"I goaded him to sue me on the night my son killed himself, and he responded exactly as I thought he would not. I never thought he'd do it," O'Connor said Friday. Far from being apologetic about his harsh remarks, O'Connor continued to berate Perzigian and turned the trial into a pulpit for his message against the evil of drugs.

"I'm tickled that he [sued], because it has brought this kind of attention -- not just to Harry but to the whole problem of pushers in the streets and in the neighborhoods," O'Connor said.icon (969K/50 sec. AIFF or WAV sound)

Since his son's death, O'Connor has become a public advocate against drug abuse, helping campaign for a California law that allows family members of addicts to sue their drug dealers for monetary damages.

Jury ruled for O'Connor on every question


O'Connor smiled and his attorneys patted him on the back as the jury's findings were read.

The Los Angeles County Court jury of six men and six woman had deliberated for six hours over two days before finding in O'Connor's favor on every question submitted to them. Only nine of the jurors had to agree on a verdict, but in each vote they indicated they were unanimous.

During closing arguments, O'Connor's lawyer, Lucy Inman, told jurors their decision would have wide-ranging repercussions, suggesting that a victory for Perzigian would inhibit victims from denouncing drug dealers.

"A verdict of even $1 would reward a criminal and silence victims," she said. "You have the power to tell the world that in the United States a grieving parent can speak out against a drug dealer without being afraid."

Perzigian's lawyer, Allan Sigel, portrayed the case as a David vs. Goliath battle between "a little guy" and "a big-time movie star." He accused O'Connor of using the power of his celebrity to persecute "a nobody."

Sigel said Perzigian wasn't responsible for Hugh O'Connor's death and that his life has been ruined by Carroll O'Connor's statements. "He lost the fun of being alive," he said. "He goes out and people say, 'There's the guy that killed Hugh O'Connor.'"

After his win in court on Friday, O'Connor said he did not plan to continue his public campaign against Perzigian.

"I'm not going to persecute Harry, even though my wife and I are persecuted daily by the pain of the loss of our boy," O'Connor told reporters.

"You people will handle Harry and the public will handle Harry and the people on the street will handle Harry when they see him. And he's going to have to pay for what he did, and I'm not sorry he's going to have to pay for it."

But he did offer Perzigian some advice, noting that, as a result of the trial, the police and Internal Revenue Service were going to be alert to his activities.

"Harry, pay your taxes and behave yourself. That means get a good, honest job," O'Connor said. "You better move through this world with great care."

Reuters contributed to this report.

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