John Grisham

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Here's a title suggestion for John Grisham's next novel: The Judge.

Because that's who the megaselling author can thank for getting him out of a legal thriller not of his own making.

A federal judge has dismissed a libel suit brought against Grisham accusing him of conspiring to slander three Oklahoma officials.

The complaint, filed last year by former Pontotoc County District Attorney Bill Peterson, ex-Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation agent Gary Rogers and state criminologist Melvin Hett, claimed Grisham defamed them in his 2006 nonfiction book, The Innocent Man. The book said prosecutorial misconduct led to innocent men being convicted in the slaying of a cocktail waitress.

Two men, Dennis Fritz and Ron Williamson, were arrested and, based on work performed by Peterson and the other plaintiffs, found guilty by a jury that sentenced the men to life in prison.

Eventually, DNA evidence cleared them—after 12 years—and also placed a key witness in the case, Glen Gore, at the scene of the grisly crime. He was later convicted and is now serving a life term.

Peterson, Rogers and Hett contended that Grisham and his fellow defendants, which included his publishing company as well as the authors of two other books critical of the state's handling of the case, had conspired to libel them, place them in a false light and inflict emotional distress to boost sales.

But U.S. District Judge Ronald White vehemently disagreed. In his ruling, he defended the novelist's right to critique the prosecution, noting that such analysis is useful "so that past mistakes do not become future ones."

"The wrongful convictions of Ron Williamson and Dennis Fritz must be discussed openly and with great vigor," he wrote in an opinion released Wednesday.

Another defendant in the case was celebrity attorney Barry Scheck, a key member of O.J. Simpson's Dream Team. Scheck is the founder of the New York-based Innocence Project and a frequent guest on CNN's Larry King Live.

In a statement, Scheck hailed the judge's decision as "a victory for free speech and for holding officials publicly accountable for their role in wrongful convictions."

Gary Richardson, a lawyer representing the plaintiffs, said his side was disappointed but not yet indicate whether they will appeal.

A rep for Grisham's publishers could not be reached for comment.

The novelist is currently cranking out his next whodunit, The Associate, which is due to hit bookstores next January.

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