Thursday, September 18, 2008

Libel Lawsuit Against John Grisham Dismissed

Today's Associated Press reported that U.S. District Judge Ronald White of the Eastern District of Oklahoma dismissed a libel lawsuit against writer John Grisham.

Pontotoc County District Attorney Bill Peterson, a former agent of the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation named Gary Rogers and an Oklahoma state criminalist named Melvin Hett filed the lawsuit against Grisham and two other authors, claiming the three authors defamed them in books.

Grisham's 2006 book--his first non-fiction--titled The Innocent Man recounted the details of the murder, and the ensuing investigation, of a cocktail waitress named Debbie Sue Carter in December, 1982. Carter had been beaten, raped and suffocated in her bedroom.

Six years later, Ronald Keith Williamson, a minor league baseball player, and his friend Dennis Fritz were convicted in 1988 for the murder. According to the New York Times, "The evidence . . . consisted of 17 hairs that matched those of Mr. Williamson and Mr. Fritz, and the account provided by [a] woman who said she had heard Mr. Williamson confess." Both the woman and a second jailhouse informant were considered unreliable witnesses.

Fritz was sentenced to life imprisonment while Williamson received the death penalty. Williamson came within five days of being executed in September, 1994.

During the automatic appeals process, Mark Barrett, Williamson's attorney, and Barry Scheck of the Innocence Project pointed out the shoddy police work of the Ada authorities and the poor evidence employed in the prosecution's case. Both Barrett and Scheck were also named as defendants in the libel suit.

A retrial was ordered and, after eleven years on Death Row, DNA evidence resulted in Williamson and Fritz being released in 1999. William died five years later of cirrhosis of the liver in December, 2004.

Eighteen months before his death, Williamson saw Glen Gore, who had testified against him during his trial, convicted of Carter's murder based on DNA evidence. Gore was sentenced to life imprisonment without parole.

Grisham was inspired to write about the case after reading Williamson's obituary in the New York Times here.

In dismissing the libel charges against Grisham, ". . . the judge wrote that it was important to be able to analyze and criticize the judicial system 'so that past mistakes do not become future ones'." (Associated Press)

In a statement, Barry Scheck said:
This is a victory for free speech and for holding officials publicly accountable for their role in wrongful convictions.

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