Free Speech

Libel Lawsuit Over "Son of a Hitman" Podcast

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

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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.

NEXT: Classes #10: Obscenity II and Estates II

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  1. I oppose the murder of federal judges. I support their impeachment for their decisions, not some trivial collateral corruption. The biggest damage they do is to our economy and to our constitution. They are all Ivy indoctrinated, know nothing bookworms imposing their personal biases on the nation, devoid of any validity.

    They are all on the arrest list for insurrection against the constitution, namely Article I Section 1 giving all lawmaking powers to the Congress. If you lawyers want judicial review, enact an Amendment.

    1. Enjoyable movie with great characters and acting. Thanks for your little fillip, which complements it wonderfully well.

      Harrelson has described his father, who had relatively little involvement in his life, as surprisingly well-read and an engaging conversationalist.

  2. Rule #1, do not talk to the media.

    Rule #2, there are no exceptions to Rule #1….

  3. I’m not sure what you could sue for but it seems there must be a valid cause of action for damaging a person’s livelihood by spreading falsehoods.

    1. Yes, that’s what defamation is.

      The issue is whether the podcast did in fact spread falsehoods, or simply offered an unfavorable opinion. That would depend heavily on exactly what was said, and the failure to include those details in the complaint tends to make me skeptical.

      (The plaintiff would also need to show that the falsehood actually caused her some form of concrete economic damage, and the complaint seems a bit conclusory on this point, but we’ll give her the benefit of the doubt.)

  4. Use of hypnosis is a display of questionable judgement. But that’s on the FBI, not her. And for that matter, the FBI knows it, too, but, like lie detectors, I’d bet it uses it more as an intimidation tactic than for it’s surface claims.

  5. Kind of reminds me a little of Patty Valentine’s suit against Bob Dylan, which she lost.

  6. The 2007 critically-acclaimed film No Country for Old Men is based on Cormac McCarthy’s 2005 novel of the same name. Much of the dialogue in the film is lifted verbatim from the novel. One passage omitted in the film is Sherriff Bell’s reflection on the murder of an unnamed federal judge in San Antonio, an obvious reference to the murder of Judge Wood by hitman Charles Harrelson. His son, Woody Harrelson, plays a hitman in the film.

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