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10th Circuit Dismisses Libel Suit Against John Grisham

Posted Feb 2, 2010 10:08 AM CDT
By Debra Cassens Weiss

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A federal appeals court has upheld the dismissal of a libel suit filed by an Oklahoma prosecutor and other state officials against best-selling author John Grisham.

The Denver-based 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said Grisham and other defendants were protected by an Oklahoma statute imposing high burdens on libel plaintiffs who are public officials, the Tulsa World reports.

The suit was filed by three former public officials: Pontotoc County District Attorney William Peterson, a state criminal investigator and a criminologist. They had alleged Grisham’s 2006 nonfiction book The Innocent Man had defamed them and inflicted emotional distress, the Associated Press reports. Grisham’s book chronicled the convictions of two men exonerated in the murder of an Oklahoma waitress after spending more than a decade in prison.

Other defendants included one of the exonderated defendants, Dennis Fritz, who also wrote a book about the case; and Fritz’s lawyer, Barry Scheck of the Innocence Project in New York.

The 10th Circuit decision (PDF) cited an Oklahoma statute requiring libel plaintiffs who can’t prove special damages to prove libel per se—a statement that is clearly defamatory on its face. Plaintiffs who are public officials carry an especially heavy burden, since the statute allows them to sue only for false statements that they engaged in criminal behavior.

“Plaintiffs expect us to scale a mountain of inferences in order to reach the conclusion that defendants’ statements impute criminal acts to plaintiffs,” the opinion said. “We decline to engage in such inferential analysis, or to take a myriad of other analytical leaps plaintiffs ask us to make.”

Prior coverage at ABAJournal.com:

Federal Judge Axes Ex-DA’s Libel Suit Over John Grisham’s ‘Innocent Man’

John Grisham Sued for Libel

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