Use of Real Names Revisited
I'm working on a book for a friend who is not a writer. Originally conceived as a ghostwriting project, at present it is working better as a collaboration-subject-to-change. In brief, my friend is from a metropolitan area that has a long history of political/police/mobster corruption. Approximately 20 years ago, he overheard his boss arranging to bribe a prosecutor in a legal matter, confronted the boss about it, but did nothing more than that. Within less than a month after that incident, my friend and his girlfriend became victims of a violent crime. When they reported this to the local police, the police then subjected them to hours and hours of interrogation, they were not allowed to call a lawyer, they were not allowed to leave -- all with the intent of forcing them to "admit" that the crime had been hoaxed by THEM for some insane reason. Eventually they broke down and "confessed". As a result, my friend lost his job, lost his side business, could not get work locally because the police spread the word around town that he was nuts, he lost his home, etc.
He wants to do the book because it tells the Truth and sets the record straight. His good name was ruined, etc., and he wants to address that.
The statute of limitations has run on any possible charges he could have filed. While there is no actual evidence that he and his girlfriend were subjected to the interrogation and forced to confess to something they didn't do, there is evidence strongly suggestive that something very odd went on -- legal records that should be part of the situation don't exist, etc.
He believes that his boss at the time likely paid the police to set my friend up, smash his life flat and so discredit him that anything he said would easily be called into question. All this so that if my friend did report that his boss was bribing a public official, it would not be believed. He is probably right although he can't prove it -- it's circumstantial.
If we don't use the real names and situation, the whole story loses its punch. My understanding of libel laws is that he is allowed to Believe that specific persons acted in specific ways and that if he has good reason to Believe that, it is not libel even if his belief is not true. He is also allowed to have an Opinion about an individual and if the opinion is a reasonable one in light of known facts, that is not libel either. There is still no guarantee he won't get sued, but he would have sound defenses to the suit.
I'd like to have some idea how well we might get around the matter by making up names of the individuals? That doesn't seem feasible to me, because it will be necessary in any case to state what positions the people held, and to those who know the area, the positions held will serve to identify who they really are.
But maybe there is a slide-by that I haven't thought of?
I'm not a lawyer, nor do I play one on TV. I suspect that if the individuals involved in the situation are still alive, then libel suits are still a possibility. Defamation of character still exists regardless of what the accuser actually believes. Certainly, the culprits can still cause all sorts of trouble for your friend (and you, for that matter), even if they don't have any actual legal recourse. There are many tales out there of harassment suits, where you can lose everything to court and lawyer fees just proving you're in the right.
All that said, you should consider your/his goals for writing this story. Is it to punish the guilty, or is it to entertain? Will it be the truth, or a compelling story based on truth? If the former, their real names are necessary, but you need to accept the inevitable risk. If the latter, change the names, or refer to them by their initials (B did this and M did that), so at least you have plausible deniability.
If it were me, I'd make it a compelling story based on truth...thinly veiled for a bit of revenge. You could not only change names, but the setting as well. If it really happened in Boston recently, write the story in L.A. in the 1950's. I'm sure they have the same kind of positions in every state...and the same kind of shenanigans. There's nothing new under the sun, you know.
Last edited by John Oberon; 10-02-2013 at 05:05 AM.
You should consult a lawyer. This is a little beyond a random online message board.
Thank you all for kicking back some thoughts. He already knows he should consult a lawyer, and I'll push him to do that fairly soon. Most of his assets are in a LLC, so he has some protections in place -- the same cannot be said for me, LOL! His plan on this book in any case is to self-publish and then place copies in just a few pertinent hands.
Sounds like Mario Puzo and The Godfather. I read once that it was somewhat of a game for NY mobsters to match real-life baddies to Puzo's characters.