Defamation suit involving book on JFK dismissed Judge notes time limit

author alleged agent fired fatal shot in 1963

September 30, 1997|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,SUN STAFF

A U.S. District Court judge in Baltimore yesterday dismissed a defamation suit filed by a retired Secret Service agent against the publishers of a book accusing him of accidentally shooting and killing President John F. Kennedy in 1963.

Judge Alexander Harvey II yesterday dismissed the suit filed by George W. Hickey Jr. of Abingdon against St. Martin's Press, Simon & Shuster and the book's author, ruling that he waited too long to sue for defamation on the basis of the book "Mortal Error."

The book by Bonar Menninger of Kansas City, Mo., claimed that Hickey, who as a 40-year-old Secret Service agent was assigned to Kennedy's Dallas motorcade, accidentally shot and killed the president.

Menninger claims that Hickey grabbed an AR-15 assault rifle after Lee Harvey Oswald fired at Kennedy and that Hickey's rifle discharged when the car he was riding in, behind Kennedy, abruptly changed speed.

Menninger agrees with the Warren Commission's finding that Oswald's shots struck the president, but he claims Hickey fired the shot that killed Kennedy.

"Mortal Error" was published in February 1992. Hickey waited until April 21, 1995, to sue -- longer than Maryland's one-year statute of limitations allows for defamation claims, Harvey ruled.

"What is apparent from the record here is that plaintiff Hickey waited much too long to seek recompense for the allegedly defamatory statements contained in Mortal Error," Harvey wrote in a 28-page opinion.

Hickey's lawyers had hoped they could base claims on the publishers' republication of the material and subsequent sales of the book in 1996. They also filed suit in federal court in New Hampshire, where laws allow for a three-year statute of limitations. The case was transferred to U.S. District Court in Baltimore because Hickey lives in Maryland.

Mark S. Zaid, Hickey's lawyer, said Hickey delayed filing suit because he was critically ill when the book was initially released.

"He was essentially on his deathbed and his family didn't expect him to live," Zaid said.

Zaid declined to let his client be interviewed but said he would appeal the ruling.

He said the book initially got very little press and sold few copies.

Menninger's claims were based on theories developed by Howard Donahue, a Maryland ballistics expert. But the theory has been brushed off by a number of Kennedy experts. Zaid said Menninger's theory was heavily circulated with the release of "JFK," Oliver Stone's film, and other reports and documentaries about Kennedy's assassination distributed on the 30th anniversary of the assassination in 1993. "It was a case where the echo has been much more damaging than the book itself," Zaid said.

The publishers' lawyer said the decision focused on whether a defamation plaintiff could circumvent statutes aimed at protecting publishers, writers and other potential defendants.

"The principal overarching issue was that the plaintiff sat on his rights for so long," said Bruce Sanford, who represented St. Martin's Press, which published the book, and Simon & Shuster, which distributed an audio version.

Pub Date: 9/30/97

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