Former DA sues author John Grisham
October 1, 2007
OKLAHOMA CITY – Author John Grisham and others were sued for libel Friday in a federal lawsuit filed by former Pontotoc County District Attorney Bill Peterson and former investigator Gary Rogers over depictions of them in Grisham’s nonfiction book The Innocent Man and books by two other authors.
Grisham’s book, his first nonfiction effort, is about the investigation and prosecution of two men convicted of the 1982 murder of Debbie Sue Carter in Ada.
Ron Williamson and Dennis Fritz were eventually exonerated and released after serving 12 years in prison.
Williamson is deceased.
Fritz, who wrote his own book, Journey Toward Justice, is also named as a defendant in the lawsuit along with several publishers, Robert Mayer, author of The Dreams of Ada, and New York City attorney Barry Scheck, who once represented Fritz and is co-director of The Innocence Project.
Grisham is a member of the Innocence Project’s board of directors.
Peterson and Rogers allege that Grisham and the other defendants engaged in a civil conspiracy “to commit libel, publicity placing a person in false light and intentional infliction of emotion distress.”
They are seeking both compensatory and punitive damages of more than $75,000.
“The Innocent Man contains malicious statements that were knowingly and recklessly made which are false, half-truths, contains incomplete information as well as omissions of material facts,” their attorneys state in a complaint filed with the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Oklahoma. “These statements were among other reasons designed to bring about great public hatred, contempt and ridicule of the plaintiffs, as well as to cause actions that would result in causing the plaintiffs to be deprived of public confidence and be injured in their professions and occupations.”
The complaint states that in the author’s note to those who helped him with his book, Grisham thanks Fritz and states that he relied heavily on Mayer’s book. The filing refers to Fritz and Mayer as co-conspirators and alleges that there are knowingly false statements in all three works.
The complaint also cites a speech made by Grisham in September 2006 referring to Peterson as “the number one bad guy in this book.”
Tulsa attorney Gary Richardson, who represents Rogers and Peterson, said the ultimate amount of damages will be considerably more than $75,000.
“The lawsuit was filed because what was supposed to be a nonfiction book was turned into a fiction book, in a lot of respects,” Richardson said. “Parts of the evidence that would put a totally different light on Bill Peterson, for example, and Gary Rogers, was not written about.”
Rogers is a former Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation agent, Shawnee police officer and investigator for the District 22 DA’s office.
Richardson contends that the three authors engaged in an obvious strategy by releasing books within days of each other. The 2006 publication of The Dreams of Ada was a re-release.
The attorney quoted Grisham in the September 2006 speech as saying he fully expected to be sued.
“Being a lawyer, I wonder why he would say that?” Richardson said, laughing.
“It’s probably somewhat difficult for someone to write fiction for so many years and then write a nonfiction book, particularly if they have a motive in mind, which we believe the evidence will show, to impact the issue of the death sentence,” he said.
Richardson said that Peterson was in Colorado Friday and declined to comment except through his attorneys.
Peterson launched a Web site earlier this year to dispute many of the allegations and conclusions in Grisham’s book.
Fritz now lives in Kansas City, Mo.
“The lawsuit is completely meritless,” Fritz said, adding that he did not know the full scope of the allegations. “I do know that libel and conspiracy is not there.”
Fritz said every word in his book is true as he remembered the events of that time.
“Factually, it’s backed up exactly by every word out of the transcript,” he said. “The problem is that Mr. Peterson convicted two innocent men, sent Ronnie and I to the penitentiary for 12 years, based upon alleged evidence that did not go beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Fritz said that Peterson achieved their convictions through “several huge mistakes, worse than mistakes, travesties of justice.”
“He doesn’t want to face the truth, really, of what happened,” he said. “He wants to try to make everybody believe that, in fact, he has not done anything wrong.”
Fritz said the lawsuit is merely a power play by Peterson “to regain what he has lost because of his actions, or mis-actions.”
“He cannot handle the truth that’s been brought out in both Mr. Grisham’s book as well as mine,” Fritz said.
Grisham’s publicist at his publisher, Doubleday, declined comment on the pending litigation.
Fritz said Grisham told him earlier Friday that he has elected not to speak to the press at the present.
“As the lawsuit progresses, he might,” Fritz said.