Best-selling author wins libel case

A federal judge in Oklahoma dismissed libel claims against author John Grisham and other writers who wrote books about the wrongful convictions of two men in a 1982 rape and murder of a cocktail waitress. The judge said the books were protected speech. -db

Courthouse News Service
February 2, 2010
By Annie Youderian

(CN) – Three public officials from Oklahoma lost their bid to revive a libel lawsuit against best-selling author John Grisham and other writers who penned books about the wrongful convictions of Dennis Fritz and Ronald Williamson.

Oklahoma District Attorney William Peterson, former police officer Gary Rogers and ex-criminalist Melvin Hett accused the authors and their publishers of engaging in a “massive joint defamatory attack” in order to drum up opposition to the death penalty.

Williamson and Fritz were wrongly convicted of the 1982 rape and murder of cocktail waitress Debra Sue Carter. After spending more than a decade in federal prison, they were exonerated by DNA evidence.

Grisham’s book about Williamson, called “The Innocent Man,” describes a broken criminal justice system that condones “bad police work, junk science, faulty eyewitness identifications, bad defense lawyers, lazy prosecutors, [and] arrogant prosecutors.”

Fritz’s book, “Journey Toward Justice,” criticized the public officials who put him behind bars. And his former attorney, Barry Scheck, devoted a chapter of his 2003 book, “Actual Innocence,” to the wrongful convictions.

The plaintiffs also sued author Robert Mayer, whose book “The Dreams of Ada” explored a case that shared many parallels with the Carter case, including Peterson as prosecutor and Rogers as investigator. Grisham said he found Mayer’s book particularly helpful in his research for “The Innocent Man.”

All but “Actual Innocence” were published or re-released in October 2006.

A federal judge in Oklahoma dismissed the libel claims, saying the books were protected political speech. The 10th Circuit agreed.

Under Oklahoma law, public officers can’t sue for libel unless someone falsely accuses them of a criminal act.

“[P]laintiffs point to no statement in which defendants directly accuse any plaintiff of a crime,” Judge Carlos Lucero wrote for the three-judge appellate panel.

“Any connection between defendants’ statements and an accusation of criminal activity is far too tenuous for us to declare them as unprivileged,” Lucero added.

The judges similarly rejected claims for civil conspiracy, emotional distress and false light invasion of privacy, and denied the plaintiffs’ motion to amend.

Copyright 2010 Courthouse News Service