On Feb. 1, 2010, the 10th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals upheld the dismissal of a libel suit against best-selling author John Grisham and several other authors who wrote about two men wrongfully convicted of murder and rape in Oklahoma.
In Peterson v. Grisham, 594 F.3d 723 (10th Cir. 2010), the appeals court found the authors' statements were protected by a state statute that prohibits libel claims against public officials unless the speaker falsely accuses the official of committing a crime.
The libel case stemmed from published works chronicling the ordeal of Ronald Williamson and Dennis Fritz, who were convicted in 1988 for a 1982 rape and murder in the rural town of Ada, Okla. Williamson and Fritz each spent 11 years in prison before they were exonerated when court-ordered DNA testing in 1999 revealed that hair and semen samples taken from the crime scene did not belong to them.
The exonerations served as the basis for two different books, a chapter in a third, and an afterword in a fourth. In each of these books, the writers strongly criticized the work of three men involved in the investigation and prosecution of the crime: former Pontotoc County District Attorney William Peterson; former Shawnee police officer Gary Rogers; and former state criminologist Melvin Hett, who testified at trial that the hair samples found at the crime scene belonged to Williamson and Fritz.
Grisham, best known for his fictional legal thrillers, used Williamson's experience to craft The Innocent Man, his first non-fiction work. In the book, Grisham criticized what he described as a broken criminal justice system that condones "bad police work, junk science, faulty eyewitness identifications, bad defense lawyers, lazy prosecutors, [and] arrogant prosecutors."
Fritz similarly criticized the public officials who helped secure his conviction in Journey Toward Justice, his personal account of the ordeal. Barry Scheck, Fritz's former attorney and a prominent anti-death penalty advocate, wrote the foreword to Journey Toward Justice, and also devoted a chapter of his 2003 book, Actual Innocence, to the wrongful convictions. Robert Mayer referred to the Williamson-Fritz case in the afterword of a new edition of his 1987 book The Dreams of Ada, which centered on a different murder investigation in the town of Ada.
After the publication of the books, Peterson, Rogers, and Hett filed suit against the authors and their publishing companies in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Oklahoma, alleging defamation, false light invasion of privacy, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and civil conspiracy. The plaintiffs claimed the authors and publishing companies engaged in "a massive joint defamatory attack" against them in an effort to abolish the death penalty.
The district court dismissed the lawsuit under Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6) for failing to state a claim upon which relief could be granted. "The wrongful convictions of Ron Williamson and Dennis Fritz must be discussed openly and with great vigor," district court Judge Ronald A. White wrote in dismissing the suit.
In affirming the dismissal of the libel claim, the unanimous three-judge appellate panel relied on Okla. Stat. tit. 12, § 1441, which exempts from libel claims "[a]ny and all criticisms upon the official acts of any and all public officers" unless a defendant made a false allegation that the public official engaged in criminal behavior.
"[P]laintiffs point to no statement in which defendants directly accuse any plaintiff of a crime," Judge Carlos F. Lucero wrote for the panel. "Any connection between defendants' statements and an accusation of criminal activity is far too tenuous for us to declare them as unprivileged."
The judges noted in a footnote that, although Oklahoma law controlled dismissing the libel claim, the First Amendment also protected at least some of the authors' statements. "[A]t a minimum, allowing the plaintiffs to recover would offend the spirit of the First Amendment," Lucero wrote. "Defendants wrote about a miscarriage of justice and attempted to encourage political and social change. To the extent their perceptions of the affair were erroneous, we depend on the marketplace of ideas - not the whim of the bench - to correct insidious opinion."
Robert Nelon, an Oklahoma City attorney who represented Random House, Grisham, Mayer, and Scheck, said the decision was an important victory for authors in a February 4 report from the First Amendment Center.
"Thankfully, the 10th Circuit recognized - as the district court did below - that public discourse about the criminal justice system is crucial to understanding the system and how miscarriages of justice can occur," Nelon said. "People who step out and research, study, comment and write about alleged miscarriages of justice should receive a high degree of protection, as we in society need more of that type of speech, not less."
Gary L. Richardson, the Tulsa-based attorney for the plaintiffs, suggested the wrongful conviction of Williamson and Fritz led the court to make a misguided decision, according to the First Amendment Center report.
"We are just still in disbelief that the court could conclude that there wasn't anything in the complaint that would give rise to a legal cause of action," Richardson said. "I get the sense that the reality of what happened to these two men has been very impacting on the court's ruling in the sense that the court focused on the fact that justice wasn't done to these two men instead of whether there is a legal cause of action."
Although the Oklahoma statute speaks only in terms of libel claims, the appeals court also affirmed the dismissal of the intentional infliction of emotional distress and false light invasion of privacy claims by concluding that Oklahoma courts had previously used the statute to exempt such additional claims when the same underlying facts are involved.
The appeals court also dismissed the civil conspiracy claim, noting that the authors and publishers did not undertake "a massive defamatory attack." Lucero wrote, "Merely because defendants published their books in close temporal proximity to one another does not demonstrate there was an illegal agreement to engage in 'a massive joint defamatory attack.'"
- CARY SNYDER
SILHA RESEARCH ASSISTANT