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Grisham Libel Suit Tossed

Dennis Fritz and Ronald Keith Williamson were convicted of the murder of Debra Sue Carter. Fritz got life in prison, and Williamson received a death penalty sentence. Four days before Williamson was to be put to death, he was exonerated by DNA testing. Both men spent 11 years in prison for a crime that they did not commit.

Stay with me here, because now the world turns upside-down.

After the exoneration, two books were published on that case by the defendants in this case: Journey Toward Justice by Dennis Fritz, and The Innocent Man by John Grisham. Additionally, Robert Mayer published The Dreams of Ada, about the investigation and prosecution of Tommy Ward and Karl Fontenot for the 1984 murder of Denice Haraway.

All three books criticize William Peterson, (the Pontotoc County District Attorney), Gary Rogers (an Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation Agent), and Melvin Hett (an Oklahoma state agent) for their roles in the cases. After publication, Peterson, Rogers, and Hett brought claims for defamation, false light, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and conspiracy to commit all of the above.

Yes, you read that right.

A man goes to jail for a crime he didn’t commit. He writes a book about the public officials who put him in jail which, naturally, criticize them. The public officials then sue the man for defamation, false light, and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

Fortunately, at least one federal judge in Oklahoma still believes in the First Amendment. Federal Judge Ronald White threw the case out finding that the publications were about public figures, reporting on matters of public concern, and even if they were not entirely true, they were substantially true. Even so, as a matter of law, they could not be held to be defamatory in any way.

The plaintiffs tried to argue that since at least one of the books was written in an effort to bring down the death penalty, it was not published with good motives. I guess that incompetently doing your job and nearly putting an innocent man to death is a good motive?

The court wrote:

These books concerning our criminal justice system garner the highest federal and state constitutional protection because they are rationally connected to the authors’ quest for political change. They are political speech. Moreover, writing a book critical of government officials involved in the wrongful conviction of two men in efforts to abolish the death penalty appear to be “good motives” and justifiable ends.”

Where the justice system so manifestly failed and innocent people were imprisoned for eleven 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. The wrongful convictions of Ron Williamson and Dennis Fritz must be discussed openly and with great vigor. Similarly, as in the Haraway case, a critic who believes that people are wrongly convicted murder should be encouraged to speak out on the subject.

In both cases, where life and liberty are at stake, the constitutional commitment to free and open political debate and the chilling effect of litigation decisively outweigh any potential harm caused by caustic statements critical of government officials. Here, the public officials’ actions should be critiqued and debated and the mere threat of liability to these critics (the defendants) would most certainly deter future criticism of public officials involved in criminal justice.

Our justice system is not infallible, mistakes are made and it is important that we analyze how and why those mistakes occur. Unfortunately for the public officials involved, criminal justice is not a pleasant business and public criticism, whether warranted or not, is often sharp and painful. Such is a small price to pay in order to protect and preserve the first amendment freedoms of expression. While the plaintiffs in this case may feel the sting of criticism, because of the enormous constitutional obstacle concerning political speech, thany statement which entitles them to relief. (source at 12)

Ahh… the world is right-side-up again.

This decision is one of the more inspiring and beautiful judicial odes to the First Amendment to come out in a long time.

Decision here. Peterson v. Grisham, Case No. CIV-07-317-RAW (E.D. OK 2008).

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