Grisham sued by DA over The Innocent Man
On Friday, two men featured in best-selling author John Grisham's non-fiction debut The Innocent Man filed suit against Charlottesville's most famous scribe and his publisher in Eastern Oklahoma Federal Court for "civil conspiracy to commit libel, publicity placing a person in a false light and intentional infliction of emotional distress, seeking damages "exceeding $75,000."
The two plaintiffs– William Peterson, the district attorney from Pontotoc County, Oklahoma, and former police officer Gary Rogers– allege that they were unlawfully portrayed Grisham's book about two men wrongfully convicted of the murder of a 21-year-old woman only to be exonerated 11 years later by DNA evidence. Their suit says that the book is rife with falsehoods and misrepresentations "designed to defame the Plaintiffs as well as, create publicity that cast the Plaintiffs in a false light."
Reached for comment, Grisham would only say that, "It would be inappropriate for me to comment on pending litigation."
The complaint doesn't list specifically what those defamatory statements are, but Peterson launched a website in response to the book that doesn't cite lies so much as it claims there are numerous passages where Grisham doesn't tell the whole story. Peterson writes, "When objectivity and balance are unduly compromised in favor of dramatic license, the truth suffers, accordingly."
Additionally, Peterson has posted scans of his reported correspondence with Grisham via faxed letters. On October 19, 2006, after Peterson raised two of his objections to him, Grisham conceded, "I am sure you will find more than two errors. Such is the nature of non-fiction. Every effort was made to be as accurate as possible, but mistakes are inevitable." When Peterson wrote back to say he didn't believe Grisham's mistakes were made in good faith, Grisham instructed Peterson, "Save yourself some time. Lose my address and fax number."
Thomas Nachbar, a professor of media law at UVA Law School, says there are circumstances where cherry picking facts would be considered libelous. "If you say a person was seen leaving the scene with his hands covered in blood and you know he's a surgeon, there's a falsehood implied by that," he explains.
H.G. "Buzz" Bissinger knows a thing or two about dealing with people who have been portrayed unflatteringly in a work of non-fiction. When he wrote Friday Night Lights, a seminal and controversial account of the 1988 high school football season in Odessa, Texas, nobody sued Bissinger but had to face many a claim of unfair portrayal in the court of public opinion.
"I had to cancel a book signing down that way due to threats of bodily harm against me," he says. "The only people who were upset about the book were people who are only in there very briefly who didn't like how I delved into issues of racism and where they were putting their educational priorities."
As far as "dramatic license" is concerned, Bissinger says that, for his part, he always wants to spin a good yarn, but never at the expense of the truth.
"You want to tell the best possible story, but you don't change facts around," he says. "Sometimes that means you don't get the story you want, but so be it."
In working on his 2005 book Three Nights in August about a three-game series between baseball's Chicago Cubs and St. Louis Cardinals, Bissinger says he got to know Grisham through the Charlottesvillian's friendship with Cardinals manager Tony La Russa. Bissinger is confident his friend is standing on high ethical ground.
"All I can do is sympathize with John, because lawsuits are often without merit, and they put the writers through hell, but he'll get through this," he says. "He is an impeccable man and I have no doubt he'll be vindicated."
This isn't the first time Grisham has been on the receiving end of a lawsuit. In 2000, St. Anne's-Belfield parent Katharine Almy, sued Grisham– a STAB board member– for trying to inflict emotional distress after he and STAB development director Alan Swanson went to Commonwealth's Attorney Jim Camblos and accused her of writing anonymous letters to both of them with the intent of breaking up Swanson's marriage. In July 2005, a judge threw out the case, only to have his ruling overturned by the Virginia Supreme Court in January. In May, Almy offered a $10,000 reward for information about the identity of the letter writer on her website, TheInnocentWoman.com.