Court throws out Ann Rule's lawsuit
A defamation lawsuit file by Ann Rule against an Eagle Creek man who wrote a scathing article about the queen of true crime has been dismissed.
King County Superior Court Judge Laura Inveen dismissed Rule’s case against Rick Swart and the weekly newspaper in Seattle that published his article, citing Washington state’s anti-SLAPP statute.
Seattle Weekly published Swart’s article titled “Ann Rule’s Sloppy Storytelling” in 2011 in which he criticized Rule’s book about Liysa Northon, an Oregon woman who was convicted of killing her husband during a 2000 camping trip in Northeast Oregon.
Swart, a former newspaper editor and publisher, dissected how Rule’s book “Heart Full of Lies” ruthlessly and inaccurately painted Northon as a sociopathic killer.
Two days after the article published on July 20, 2011, author Rick Swart made a shocking admission: The subject of his article was his fiancée. They were married in the visiting room at Coffee Creek Correctional Facility in Wilsonville within two months of the article’s publication.
“We feel vindicated by the findings of the court,” Swart said in a prepared statement. “This is a victory not only for me but for every journalist who relies on First Amendment protection of free speech. I hope this decision gives other journalists the courage to dig below the surface, question those who are in authority, and not simply accept the propaganda of the powerful as the gospel. One of the most important functions of the press is to give voice to the disenfranchised, and some of the most disenfranchised members of our society are victims of domestic abuse.”Rule contended that the article damaged her stellar reputation as a best-selling true-crime writer. Since her first book, “The Stranger Beside Me,” hit bookstores in 1980, Rule, 78, has established herself as one of the true-crime genre’s most beloved authors.
Rule’s attorney Anne Bremner said they “respectfully disagree” with the ruling and are considering an appeal.
“We firmly believe that the statute that was relied upon by the court, the anti-SLAPP statute, does not apply to this case,” Bremner said in an email. “The purpose of the statute is clearly stated — to protect speech that seeks government action, change, or even just awareness of an issue, such as protesting with hopes that the legislature would take notice. The fear is that a meritless lawsuit would be filed against individuals or organizations on a substantive issue of public interest or social significance; in essence using an improper lawsuit to stop the individual or organization from speaking its point. Hence the title ‘Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation.’ No one condones these ‘SLAPP suits.’ … However, this statute clearly was not enacted for the purpose of defeating general defamation claims and/or stopping injured individuals from using the courts to legitimately seek civil redress for defamatory comments that damage their reputation.”
The judge found that Washington’s law against lawsuits intended to punish free speech applied to the case. Such lawsuits, are not necessarily filed in the hopes of a courtroom victory, but can intimidate and silence defendants who don’t have the time or money to fight them. The anti-SLAPP statute was enacted in 2010 to bar such suits.
While dismissing the case, the judge also found that Rule had not proved that Swart’s allegations in the article were false or defamatory.
Rule must pay Swart, the newspaper and two other defendants each $10,000, as well as attorney and legal fees. The other defendants include the newspaper’s former editor and Village Voice Media, which owned the newspaper at the time the article ran.
Northon served 12 years in prison for fatally shooting her husband. She was released in October 2012 and now lives with Swart in rural Eagle Creek.
In Rule’s 2003 book about the case, she outlined how Northon methodically planned her husband’s death, motivated by $300,000 in life insurance, property in Hawaii and Bend, reportedly worth $1 million, and free airline flights due to her husband’s career as a pilot for Hawaiian Airlines.
Northon, however, said she was a battered woman who only acted in self-defense and in defense of her children. She said her husband was intoxicated and on drugs when he choked, beat and tried to drown her during the camping trip.
Later that night, she heard him stirring and thought he was coming after her. She said she ran for the car and blindly fired a gun at her husband. After fleeing with her 3-year-old son, she drove to the home of a friend in Washington state where her older son from a prior marriage was staying.
Once there, she said her husband had tried to kill her. The county undersheriff found her husband's body later that afternoon. He’d been shot in the head. Northon eventually was charged with murder but pleaded guilty to the lesser charge of manslaughter.
Northon and Swart are now pushing for stronger laws to protect victims of domestic violence. They are currently working with lawmakers and others to craft a comprehensive Domestic Violence Shield Law that will be introduced in the 2015 Oregon legislative session, Swart said.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Mara Stine is a former Gresham Outlook news reporter — and now freelancer — who has covered the Rick Swart/Ann Rule case since its beginning. Rick Swart is a former publisher of the South County Spotlight, which is part of Community Newspapers Inc., which incudes The Outlook, Sandy Post and Estacada News.