In 2006, John Grisham published "The Innocent Man," a nonfiction account of the 1982 murder of Debra Sue Carter, a cocktail waitress in Ada, Okla,, and the wrongful conviction of two men who – after spending more than a decade in jail – were eventually exonerated of the crime. The next year, the county district attorney and two investigators involved in that wrongful conviction filed a lawsuit against Grisham, charging that his book had defamed them and inflicted emotional distress on them.
But this week a federal appeals court in Denver dismissed the case. "Given that plaintiffs are public officials, they face an especially heavy burden in attempting to demonstrate libel," 10th US Circuit Judge Carlos Lucero wrote.
The case against Grisham, which 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, was originally filed in an Oklahoma City court. There, US District Judge Ronald White dismissed the case in no uncertain terms. "What two words best describe a claim for money damages by government officials against authors and publishers of books describing purported prosecutorial misconduct?" he asked in his ruling. "Answer: Not plausible."
The plaintiffs, however, pursued an appeal, and this week's ruling rejects that attempt. The plaintiffs had also charged that Grisham and the other defendants were motivated by their desire to abolish the death penalty.
In "The Innocent Man," Grisham writes of a “broken criminal system” and refers to “bad police work” and “lazy prosecutors.”
But the court did not find Grisham's unflattering portrayal of the plaintiffs to be libelous. Lucero stated in his ruling that official acts of public officers are "privileged" and "cannot be considered libelous unless the defendant makes a false allegation [that] the official engaged in criminal behavior.”
Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor's book editor.
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