OKLAHOMA CITY – Author John Grisham is asking an Oklahoma federal court to dismiss a libel lawsuit filed against him by Pontotoc County District Attorney Bill Peterson and others over their depiction in Grisham’s nonfiction best-seller "The Innocent Man", about the prosecution of Dennis Fritz and Ron Williamson for the 1982 murder of Debra Sue Carter. The Pontotoc County District Attorney Bill Peterson is the prosecutor who sent Dennis Fritz and Ron Williamson, 2 innocent men to prison for 12 years with no real evidence against them. The real killer Glen Gore, was the prosecution's key witness. Other defendants in the case:
- Author Dennis Fritz ,who tells his story of his unwarranted prosecution and wrongful conviction his book "Journey Toward Justice".
- Barry Scheck, one of Fritz’s lawyers who helped exonerate him in 1999, and a co-author of “Actual Innocence,” that discusses the case of Williamson and Fritz.
- Robert Mayer, author of “The Dreams of Ada.” - Mayer’s book discusses another Pontotoc County murder case that is also mentioned in Grisham’s book. The murder of Denice Haraway and the subsequent investigation, prosecution and conviction of Tommy Ward and Karl Fontenot. Bill Peterson got questionable convictions on Ward and Fontenot , and they are still in prison.
Robert Mayer, author of The Dreams of Ada; and Barry Scheck, with The Innocence Project, have also filed motions asking the court to dismiss the lawsuit against them.
- The Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, publisher of “The Innocent Man” and “Actual Innocence.”
- Random House Inc., which owns Doubleday Dell.
- Broadway Books, publisher of “The Dreams of Ada.”
- Seven Locks Press and/or James C. Riordan, publisher of “Journey Toward Justice.”
Seven Locks Press and James Riordan have asked that the complaint against them be dismissed for failure to state a claim.
In addition to Peterson, other plaintiffs in the lawsuit are Gary Rogers, a former Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation agent, and Melvin Hett, a retired OSBI criminalist.
Bill Peterson and Gary Rogers were instrumental in the conviction of Ron Williamson and Dennis Fritz in the murder of Debbie Sue Carter in Ada, Oklahoma in 1982.
The Peterson and Rogers lawsuit, filed in federal court, alleges civil conspiracy, libel, placing a person in a false light and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
Dennis Fritz and Ron Williamson were eventually exonerated by DNA evidence after serving about 12 years in prison. A man named Glen Gore was ultimately convicted of the murder of Debra Sue Carter.
Ron Williamson was sentenced to death for the Carter murder, Fritz received a life sentence. Ron Williamson died Dec. 4, 2004 at the age of 51.
Dennis Fritz, recently wrote a book called, "Journey Toward Justice" about the case, is also named as a defendant in the lawsuit.
Attorneys for Grisham, hang much of their argument for dismissal on First Amendment freedom of speech.
“Grisham’s book, just like each of the other books about which the plaintiffs complain, is core political speech protected by the First Amendment and representing the highest order of public service by raising awareness about important social and political issues – the criminal justice system – and bringing to light issues of public concern about the performance by government officials of their public duties,” their brief states.
They also told the court that long-established Oklahoma law forecloses any civil liability for criticism of the acts of public officials, except for any statement that “falsely imputes crime to the officer so criticized.”
The attorneys contend that Grisham’s book amounts to constitutionally protected opinion, and that the complaint “does not contain enough facts to state any claim against Grisham and Doubleday that is plausible on its face.”
They also said the plaintiffs should be required to identify specifically each allegedly actionable statement made by each defendant.
“Their suggestion that The Innocent Man portrays them generally as ‘bad guys’ for their roles in the controversial convictions discussed in the book does not state a claim against Grisham and Doubleday,” the author’s attorneys stated to the court.
The attorneys also contend that the plaintiffs’ false-light invasion of privacy claim is deficient for similar reasons, with the added argument that a public official can have no expectation of privacy with respect to the performance of public duties.
Bill Peterson recently announced his intention to retire Jan. 2008, after serving some 27 years as district attorney.