Author John Grisham is asking an Oklahoma federal court to dismiss a libel lawsuit filed against him by Pontotoc County District Attorney Bill Peterson and others over their depiction in Grisham’s nonfiction best-seller The Innocent Man, about the prosecution of two men for the 1982 murder of a young Ada woman.
Dennis Fritz and Ron Williamson were eventually exonerated by DNA evidence after serving about 12 years in prison. A man named Glen Gore was ultimately convicted of the murder of Debra Sue Carter Williamson, now deceased, was sentenced to death for the Carter murder, at one point coming within five days of execution. Fritz received a life sentence.
Fritz, who wrote Journey Toward Justice about the case, is also named as a defendant in the lawsuit.
Attorneys for Grisham, known mainly for penning legal-thriller novels, hang much of their argument for dismissal on First Amendment freedom of speech.
“Grisham’s book, just like each of the other books about which the plaintiffs complain, is core political speech protected by the First Amendment and representing the highest order of public service by raising awareness about important social and political issues – the criminal justice system – and bringing to light issues of public concern about the performance by government officials of their public duties,” their brief states.
They also told the court that long-established Oklahoma law forecloses any civil liability for criticism of the acts of public officials, except for any statement that “falsely imputes crime to the officer so criticized.”
The attorneys contend that Grisham’s book amounts to constitutionally protected opinion, and that the complaint “does not contain enough facts to state any claim against Grisham and Doubleday that is plausible on its face.”
They also said the plaintiffs should be required to identify specifically each allegedly actionable statement made by each defendant.
“Their suggestion that The Innocent Man portrays them generally as ‘bad guys’ for their roles in the controversial convictions discussed in the book does not state a claim against Grisham and Doubleday,” the author’s attorneys stated to the court.
The attorneys also contend that the plaintiffs’ false-light invasion of privacy claim is deficient for similar reasons, with the added argument that a public official can have no expectation of privacy with respect to the performance of public duties.
Grisham’s book is critical of some of the actions of those involved in the prosecution. Peterson and two other men are suing Grisham for libel and other claims.
Earlier this year, Peterson launched a Web site detailing what he says are numerous inaccuracies in Grisham’s first nonfiction effort.
Peterson recently announced his intention to retire after serving some 27 years as district attorney.
Other defendants in the case, including Random House Inc. and its Doubleday publishing group; Robert Mayer, author of The Dreams of Ada; and Barry Scheck, with The Innocence Project, have also filed motions asking the court to dismiss the lawsuit against them. Mayer’s book discusses another Pontotoc County murder case that is also mentioned in Grisham’s book.
Seven Locks Press and James Riordan have asked that the complaint against them be dismissed for failure to state a claim. Fritz’s book was published by Seven Locks.
In addition to Peterson, other plaintiffs in the lawsuit are Gary Rogers, a former Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation agent, and Melvin Hett, a retired OSBI criminalist.
Source: The Journal Record