The Volokh Conspiracy

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Free Speech

Libel Lawsuit Over "Son of a Hitman" Podcast [UPDATE: The Lawsuit Has Been Dismissed]

The podcast is about Charles Harrelson (actor Woody Harrelson's father), who had been convicted of murdering a federal judge


[UPDATE 3/15/2023: I just learned that Judge David Ezra granted defendants' motion to dismiss, on Nov. 1, 2021: "[T]he podcast as a whole does not carry the defamatory meanings alleged by Plaintiff and is not defamatory towards her. Plaintiff has failed to plead facts that would constitute false and defamatory statements as required by Texas law to state a defamation claim or facts that would show the podcast as a whole is reasonably interpreted to be defamatory towards Plaintiff."]

A bit about the podcast from Gina Tron (Oxygen):

A new podcast explores the sordid criminal career of Woody Harrelson's father, a convicted murderer who worked as a hitman-for-hire…. While Woody Harrelson … isn't involved in the podcast, his brothers Brett and Jordan do participate…. [Charles Harrelson] was convicted of the 1979 assassination of federal judge John H. Wood Jr…. Wood was the first federal judge to have been killed during the 20th century.

From the Complaint in Parker v. Spotify USA, Inc., filed today on behalf of Dr. Chrysanthe Parker, who was a prosecution witness in the Wood murder trial:

When the podcast was finally released, the host labeled Dr. Parker as "a very unusual witness," and used that phrase as the title to Episode 6, which featured her interview. He cast her as the "star witness" and focused almost singularly on the fact that the FBI had attempted to use hypnosis to conduct some interviews with her, calling it a "display of questionable judgment." He used only selected portions of her interview to lead the audience to the conclusion that Charles Harrelson's conviction relied on information obtained through her hypnosis, and that Dr. Parker was complicit in a scheme to convict Charles Harrelson with fabricated evidence that should have been inadmissible. This is false. The podcast purposely concealed the fact that none of the interviews Dr. Parker gave under hypnosis were relied on by the prosecution, and that it was Charles Harrelson's defense counsel that elicited the testimony they were discussing in the podcast at that point.

The episode similarly implies Dr. Parker's complicity in a scheme to fabricate evidence by stating that the FBI only "found" her after an extensive search for any witnesses, implying that the FBI had become desperate for evidence. This is also false. Jason Cavanagh knew from interviewing Dr. Parker that she had contacted the FBI herself as soon as she learned about the murder of her neighbor, Judge Wood, to report the suspicious man who had purposely bumped into her, and that she gave her first interview to the FBI later that same day. The episode and the podcast as a whole purposely leads the audience to the false conclusion that Dr. Parker, as a young attorney and officer of the Court, was either complicit or actively participated in manufacturing evidence to perpetuate an unfair trial on Charles Harrelson.

Jason Cavanagh spoke with one or more former FBI agents who worked on the investigation of Judge Wood's murder. Jason Cavanagh knew from these conversations that his allegations that Dr. Parker was a "found" witness, that she was the "star" witness, and that her statements to the FBI were obtained by hypnosis were all false and baseless. The falsity of these allegations is also confirmed by a review of the trial transcript, a basic task of investigatory research which Jason Cavanagh presumably took as a competent, ethical journalist. The verifiable reality that these allegations are false does not fit with the narrative of Jason Cavanagh's and Brett Harrelson's podcast, and that information was excluded.

Dr. Parker, in addition to being an attorney, is a multiply certified healthcare professional with over twenty years of experience as a treating practitioner, clinical researcher, and academic medical educator in the field of post-Traumatic stress disorder. She testifies as an expert witness, helping judges and jurors understand the causes of trauma and its effects on its victims. To be effective in this necessary work, her reputation for honesty and professionalism must remain—literally—unimpeachable. Dr. Parker has already been forced to answer questions in her practice concerning the podcast's fabricated portrayal of her actions, character, and judgment. She has been warned that the podcast's release may lead to her not being hired to testify in some or all cases, costing her employment and depriving the Courts of her expert perspective on trauma. The actions of the Defendants have irrevocably damaged her reputation, and the Defendants have profited and continue to profit off the sensationalist and defamatory presentation of Dr. Parker's interview contained in "Son of a Hitman."

I'm not sure that these factual allegations, even if accurate, amount to a viable defamation claim, but it will be interesting to watch this.