The defendant: Grisham's courtroom drama
Almost five years since Katharine Almy originally filed an $11 million lawsuit against legal thriller author John Grisham and a local private school, the parties found themselves sitting across the aisle again June 22 as Judge William Shelton entertained Almy's request for a jury trial– and the defendants' call for dismissal.
It wasn't the first time.
On the eve of trial in January 2003, after more than two years of legal wrangling, Almy filed to nonsuit her first case, with the right to refile in six months.
"This is a much more detailed complaint than before," says her Northern Virginia lawyer, Michael Lieberman. "We learned so much in the initial filing."
Missing from the list of defendants in this round is private school St. Anne's-Belfield. Also, Almy originally sued on nine counts and asked for $1 million in damages for each.
Now she's down to two main counts: conspiracy to intentionally inflict emotional distress (against Grisham, St. Anne's development director Alan Swanson, his wife, Donna, and handwriting experts DavidLiebman and Cina Wong), and the intentional infliction of emotional distress (against Grisham and the Swansons).
So in a case in which, should Almy prevail, attorneys' fees will probably far exceed any damage award, this isn't about money. In fact, sources familiar with the case say that at the beginning, Almy would have been satisfied with an apology.
"This has wrecked her life," says one of her friends.
The chain of events leading to the lawsuit goes back to 1996, when Donna Swanson started receiving "cruel" anonymous letters designed to break up her marriage to her husband, who had coached baseball with Grisham, according to Almy's motion.
In March 1998, Grisham also received an anonymous letter, and he and Swanson concluded that Almy had sent the letters.
According to court filings, Grisham saw an ad for handwriting examiner David Liebman in Norfolk. He sent the anonymous letters to Liebman, along with a note from Almy thanking him for signing books she used for charitable purposes and the registration form she filled out for her child to play baseball at Cove Creek Park, which Grisham had built.
When Liebman said he'd need additional samples, Grisham and Swanson copied a St. Anne's enrollment form for Almy's son– a form marked "strictly confidential."
Liebman allegedly had no opinion whether Almy wrote the letters but noted that it was "possible" she addressed the envelopes, according to the motion.
Grisham and Swanson's letters were not connected, one source maintains.
As for the Swanson letters, "There's no way in the world Katharine Almy would have known anything about the content of those letters," says the source, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity. "They were totally sexual, with Monica Lewinsky-like references. Katharine is not a woman who uses obscenities. She says 'dag nabbit.' And she's never done anything anonymous in her life."
This anonymous source also claims that around that time, a number of other St. Anne's parents were receiving anonymous letters too.
Based on Liebman and Wong's handwriting assessment, which Almy alleges was written in such a manner as to "mislead the reader," Grisham and Swanson took the letters to an attorney, the commonwealth's attorney, and then the police.
On August 13, 1998, Detective Thomas Grimes came to see Almy.
In the courtroom, as Lieberman described the severe emotional distress Almy experienced over the following months– "absolutely hysterical," "distraught," "almost catatonic," "curled up in fetal position"– Charles Almy put his arm around his wife, who dabbed her eyes with a tissue.
Grisham defense attorney Tom Albro told the judge that Almy's emotional distress did not meet the "stringent" requirements of the Supreme Court of Virginia, nor did her medical treatment, which consisted of several visits to a psychologist.
"She alleged she had medical treatment, and Judge Hogshire [in an earlier hearing] said, 'I expected a medical doctor," said Albro.
If Shelton grants Almy's motion for a jury trial, whether seeing a therapist constitutes medical treatment will undoubtedly be an issue.
Another factor necessary to support a claim of severe emotional distress: Almy's attorneys must prove the defendants acted in a manner that would be considered "intolerable" and "outrageous" in a "civilized society."
"How can it be intolerable and outrageous for a handwriting expert to give her professional opinion?" asked Don Morin, Wong's attorney. (Liebman did not appear in court.)
Defense attorneys for Grisham and the Swansons portrayed their clients as taking "responsible, measured steps," checking with handwriting experts and an attorney and prosecutor before going to the police.
"They all forgot to mention they lied," countered Lieberman, "saying, 'Our experts say it was written by Mrs. Almy.'"
Almy took a polygraph test and submitted a handwriting sample to the state forensics lab. Police never filed charges.
The identity of the letter writer, who set in motion this legal morass that has consumed nearly a dozen lives for years and cost thousands and thousands of dollars, continues to puzzle Lieberman.
"We're actively seeking information from any source about who the author is," he tells the Hook, urging those with knowledge to call the law firm of DiMuro Ginsberg at 703-684-4334.
In John Grisham's longest legal tale, he plays a defendant.
PHOTO BY JEN FARIELLO