MUSKOGEE, Okla. (CN) – John Grisham and two other authors did not libel Oklahoma officials in their books about the investigation and prosecution of two murders, including the case of a death-row inmate who was exonerated after spending 11 years in prison, a federal judge ruled.
Both murders occurred in the small town of Ada, Okla. Dennis Fritz’s “Journey Toward Innocence” and John Grisham’s “The Innocent Man” explore the 1982 murder of Debra Sue Carter, and the subsequent conviction and exoneration of Fritz and Ron Williamson. “The Dreams of Ada” by Robert Mayer details the investigation and prosecution of Tommy Ward and Karl Fontenot for the 1984 murder of Denice Hartaway.
The books take aim at Pontotoc County District Attorney William Peterson, state investigator Gary Rogers and criminalist Melvin Hett for their handling of the murder cases.
The officials sued the authors for civil conspiracy, defamation, false light publicity and intentional infliction of emotional distress. Citing 71 allegedly defamatory passages, the officials claimed the authors “coordinated their efforts to launch a massive joint defamatory attack … through the use of speeches, interviews and simultaneously publishing three books that were all three strategically released in October of 2006.”
The plaintiffs say the authors were motivated by a desire to “further efforts to abolish the death penalty.”
U.S. District Judge Ronald White dismissed the claims, saying the authors and publishers were fully protected by the First Amendment.
“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,” White wrote. “They are political speech.”
He added that “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.'”