Yesterday a federal judge in Oklahoma City dismissed a libel suit against bestselling author John Grisham and spoke in strong terms about the need to protect free speech when it comes to analysis of the US legal system.
"What two words best describe a claim for money damages by government officials against authors and publishers of books describing purported prosecutorial misconduct?," asked US District Judge Ronald White in his ruling. "Answer: Not plausible."
The suit involved Grisham's book "The Innocent Man," written about the 1982 killing of Debra Sue Carter, an Ada, Okla., cocktail waitress. Two men, Dennis Fritz and Ron Williamson, were arrested and convicted of the killing, then later freed by DNA evidence after serving 12 years in prison.
Grisham's book explores both the killing and the subsequent investigation. Former Pontotoc County District Attorney William Peterson, former Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation investigator Gary Rogers, and Melvin Hett, an Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation criminologist, were plaintiffs in the case.
All had been involved in the arrest and prosecution of Fritz and Williamson and argued that Grisham's book defamed them. Their suit alleged that Grisham – and several other defendants in the suit – conspired to commit libel and that in order to generate publicity for themselves they placed the plaintiffs in a false light and intentionally inflicted emotional distress.
The other defendants in the case included Grisham's publishers, two other authors who had written about the case, their publishers, and and Barry Scheck, founder of the New York-based Innocence Project who had served as an attorney for one of the accused men.
"Where the justice system so manifestly failed and innocent people were imprisoned for 11 years (one almost put to death), it is necessary to analyze and criticize our judicial system (and the actors involved) so that past mistakes do not become future ones," White wrote in his ruling. "The wrongful convictions of Ron Williamson and Dennis Fritz must be discussed openly and with great vigor."
It's not yet clear whether the plaintiffs will pursue an appeal.