Judge rules Grisham is an Innocent Man in libel case

John Grisham (seen here at a 2007 fundraiser for Sen. Hillary Clinton [D-NY]) sold over 2 million copies of The Innocent Man, making it the best-selling non-fiction book of 2006.
FILE PHOTO BY TOM DALY

A federal judge dismissed on September 17 the libel suit against John Grisham filed by Potontoc County, Oklahoma district attorney Bill Peterson for the way Grisham portrayed Peterson in his non-fiction best-seller The Innocent Man. In the 2006 book, Grisham tells the story of how Peterson and others attempted to thwart appeals and suppress new evidence in a murder case in which Peterson had won the conviction of two men eventually exonerated by DNA evidence.

“It’s always nice when you win one,” says Grisham. “This happens almost every year, but usually it’s someone who has written either a book or an unpublished manuscript that is somewhat similar to something I wrote 10 years later. It’s part of the price of doing business at this level.”

To read Judge Ronald White’s ruling, it looks as though the case wasn’t even close to going to trial.

“Where the justice system so manifestly failed and innocent people were imprisoned for 11 years (and one almost put to death),” wrote Judge White for the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Oklahoma, “it is necessary to analyze and criticize our judicial system (and the actors involved) so that past mistakes do not become future ones.”

Furthermore, White suggested in his ruling that Potontoc County's Peterson, along with two Oklahoma state police officials who joined his suit, may be advised to get some thicker skin.

“While the plaintiffs may feel the sting of criticism,” White wrote, “because of the enormous constitutional obstacle concerning political speech, they do not plausibly assert any statement which entitles them to relief.”

Peterson first complained to Grisham about two specific inaccuracies in the book in October 2006, months after the book’s release. In a faxed letter, which Peterson would eventually post on the Internet, Grisham responded to Peterson by acknowledging in a faxed letter, “I am sure you will find more than two errors. Such is the nature of non-fiction.”

When Peterson pressed further and alleged that Grisham’s mistakes were not of the honest variety, the best-selling author and Albemarle resident faxed back a note with a suggestion for Peterson. “Save yourself some time,” wrote Grisham. “Lose my address and fax number.”

Nearly two years later Grisham says he doesn’t regret such tough talk.

“It was flippant, yes,” he says, “but it was very appropriate for a guy like Peterson. He wanted to get into a spitting contest, and I said, ââ?¬Ë?I’m not going to do it.’”

Besides finishing his latest work of fiction, Grisham is staying busy hitting the campaign trail for two Democratic congressional candidates: Tom Perriello, running for the House of Representatives in the Fifth District of Virginia, and Ronnie Musgrove, running for the U.S. Senate in Mississippi, where Grisham once held a seat in the state legislature before his best-selling days.

Given his experience with The Innocent Man, Grisham says he’s not inclined to write non-fiction again anytime soon, but not because of the legal troubles.

“What dissuades me is that it’s too much work,” he says. “There’s too much research. You’ve got to be accurate, and dig for facts. I can create stuff and call it fiction and finish a book in four months. The Innocent Man took 18 months. I’m too lazy for all of that.”

–originally reported Thursday, September 18 at 10:31am
–last updated September 23 at 1:04pm

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2 comments

Now get back to writing fiction, Mr. Grisham.

I had a bad day on Wednesday, but not as bad as Hank Greenberg of AIG. According to news accounts he lost in excess of $3 billion in personal wealth. This may give Kluge a step up the ladder. I'm rooting for him.

On a similar note: the Washington Post went into this big thing about the "antropomorphizing" the market as if it were a human being...that isn't the problem, it's the deification of the market, as if it is God, and a God whose priests are Harvard and Virginia MBA's "juicing the returns".

Rich Collins