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The Appeal: 10th Cir. Appellate Court Dismisses Grisham Defamation Suit

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By Tanya Roth, Esq. on February 04, 2010 12:15 PM

On Monday, the Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit upheld a dismissal of the defamation suit against author John Grisham and co-defendants Dennis Fritz, anti-death penalty advocate Barry Scheck, author Robert Mayer and their publishers. The plaintiffs, former Oklahoma District Attorney William Peterson, former Shawnee police officer Gary Rogers, and former Oklahoma state criminologist Melvin Hett, had sued the defendants for defamation, invasion of privacy and civil conspiracy for their books recounting the botched investigation and trial for the 1982 rape and murder of Debra Sue Carter, in Ada, Oklahoma.

Ronald Williamson and Dennis Fritz were falsely accused, convicted and were serving death and life sentences respectively for Carter's murder, when they were exonerated by DNA evidence in 1999. Grisham, Scheck and the former accused Dennis Fritz all wrote books concerning the failures of the DA and police in prosecuting and convicting the wrong men for the crime. Robert Mayer wrote his book about a similar case that also occurred in Ada. To put it mildly, descriptions of plaintiffs contained in the stories were not flattering. The plaintiffs sued, claiming  "a massive joint defamatory attack" by the defendants.  

The Court of Appeals found that the plaintiffs had failed in their second try at a complaint, to state a claim that could be remedied by the court. Under Oklahoma law, for a public official to prove defamation, they must show that false statements that they engaged in criminal behavior were made. Unlike some areas of the world where nearly any comment about an official can land the speaker in hot water, laws such as this provide even more leeway for discussion about officials and their performance of their public functions. According to the Court's opinion, the plaintiffs failed to show that the defendants had made such false statements.

In their opinion, the Court specifically says, "plaintiffs point to no statement in which defendants directly accuse any plaintiff of a crime. Plaintiffs expect us to scale a mountain of inferences in order to reach the conclusion that defendants' statements impute criminal acts to plaintiffs .... We decline to engage in such inferential analysis, or to take a myriad of other analytical leaps plaintiffs ask us to make." The court found the same burden applied to the claims of false light invasion of privacy and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

The court concluded by denying the plaintiffs' request to amend their complaint for a third time.

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