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Wakefield vs. Brian Deer, Fiona Godlee and the BMJ: Dispatches from the Front

Posted Mar 01 2013 12:00am
Austin By Dan E. Burns

This is Chapter One in a series of occasional dispatches from An Independent Me, a charity for ASD adults on the front of the autism epidemic. Read the PROLOGUE HERE .

Zero and I stomped down the parking garage stairs near the Travis County Courthouse, footsteps ricocheting through the concrete ramps.  Above us, the courthouse stood like a stone sentinel, caressed by shadows of summer foliage, live oaks and panicles of crepe myrtle, this July day in 2012.

The hearing was about jurisdiction. Dr. Wakefield was suing BMJ – the British Medical Journal – for libel. Hack writer Brian Deer, commissioned by the Sunday Times of London, had called Dr. Wakefield a fraud; and Fiona Godlee, editor of the BMJ, reprinted the libelous Times article, embellished it, and profited from it in promotions throughout the United States, including Dr. Wakefield’s home state of Texas. Would the lawsuit play out in a Texas courtroom, or would the proceedings be remanded to England, home base for the libelers? “Mr. Wakefield has been found unfit to practice,” the BMJ team argued. “Why should a Texas court decide what has already been litigated in England?” Beyond that today rumbled the larger question: Who is the fraud, Wakefield or Deer?

I remembered a scenario Dr. Wakefield had created for me, first time we met. “Imagine a village,” he said, “where young adults with autism could live and work, enjoy life, continue to heal, and give back to society. Imagine the residences, the clinic, restaurant, gift store, microenterprise center, the gardens, the wellness center for conventions and outreach. Hang a sign on the gate that says ‘Autism Village.’ Now come back in thirty years. The village is abandoned and the sign is rusty, swinging in the wind, because the epidemic has ceased to exist. That’s the future I’d like to see. Let’s make it happen.”

Zero and I tunneled through courthouse security to reception. The staffers were kids in T-shirts and scruffy jeans. They could have been taken for juvenile delinquents if they’d been on the other side of the desk. “We’re looking for Dr. Andrew J. Wakefield vs. BMJ, Godlee, and Deer,” I said.

“Fifth floor,” said the JD. I turned around, and there was Dr. Andy Wakefield and his family behind us, outfitted for the opera and boarding an antiquated elevator. “Thanks for coming,” said Andy through the closing door. “See you up there.”

The compact courtroom was crowded with black-suited attorneys and legal aides. Marc Fuller, the short guy with glasses, was lead attorney for the BMJ. William M. Parrish, the tall guy in cowboy boots, led for our team.

The Wakefield family took their seats. Corin, their handsome young teen, entered the row first, followed by Andy’s wife Carmel, ethereal and pale from her body-shattering head-on collision with a truck, but walking upright and unassisted. Was that a rosary in her hand? Andy, blue blazered, took the middle position, holding a pen. To his left their sequined daughter Imogen, a high-school activist who together with her British counterpart Bella raised money to support ASD kids by staging “Give Autism a Chance” events. Imogen’s braided hair framed her forehead like a crown. I imagined her mother, carefully and painfully crossing each regal braid with her broken, mending fingers.

Enter the judge, Amy Meachum, blonde, a bit too cheery, clutching a massive binder full of documentation. “Sit down,” she breezed, with the feigned informality of someone who held a position larger than herself. “Y’all kept me up late reading,” she said, holding up the binder, yellow post-it notes sticking out like frizzy hair. “Can cut to the core of this? Or we’ll be here all day.”

There was no cutting. The first two hours turned on legal terms: special vs. general appearance, specific jurisdiction, Chapter 27, anti-Slapp, purposeful availment, incantations projected as PowerPoint slides on dueling monitors. The BMJ attorneys dominated the dialogue. By midmorning I was bored, exhausted, and needed to pee. It seemed that nothing had been accomplished. “Bottom line, the British government has an overriding interest in this case,” said the short guy, “and it should be settled in Britain.”

“What are you hearing?” I asked Zero. He claimed to have auditory perception up to 40,000 hertz, twice the normal human range. Back at the ranch, afternoons, when the hens had disappeared into the woods seeking bugs and shade, he gave us the Daily Chicken Report: “They’re OK.” Zero also claimed he could tell when someone was lying by perturbations in the vocal track. “There’s a couple of flaws in the short guy’s case,” he said. “His voice says so.”

The court recessed for a ten-minute biology break. The distinguished William M. Parrish, Big Tex with a silver fox haircut, was in the men’s room washing his hands. “Go get ‘em, cowboy,” I said.

“I will.”

Back in the courtroom, it was our turn. Parrish planted his boots on the floor, unfolded his flagpole frame, and stood up. “Your honor,” he said, “This is a story about suffering children and their mothers and families, and a doctor’s decision to listen to them.” The room stirred. Here at last was the argument we had come to hear.

“On January 6, 2011,” he continued, “Anderson Cooper interviewed Brian Deer. ‘If Andrew Wakefield can prove he didn’t falsify his data,’ Deer said, ‘he could file a libel action against myself, the Sunday Times of London, and against the BMJ. If not guilty, he would be the richest man in America. So why doesn’t he sue me?’”

“Objection,” said the BMJ guy.

“Hold on a second,” said Judge Amy. I stole a glance at Andy. Now we were at the core of it. “Your honor,” continued Parrish, “Brian Deer came here with a chip on his shoulder. If you pick a fight in Texas, you settle it in Texas. That’s why we’re in this courtroom today.”

More dueling monitors, but the drama had peaked. The judge promised a quick resolution. “I’ll be in contact soon,” she said.

As we walked back to the parking garage, Zero and I caught up with the Wakefield family. Andy looked pleased. He felt that our points had been well received. “Now I can go home and get out of this hot blazer.”

But the resolution was not “soon,” as promised. Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday went by with no word from Judge Amy. “Look on the bright side,” said Zero. “If everything was going right, there’d be nothing to look forward to.” But when the order finally came, it was a disappointment. Motion denied. Oddly, the original typewritten date, July 31, a Tuesday, had been scratched out. Inked in longhand was August 3, 2012, a Friday. Why the delay?

“Don’t give up hope,” said Andy.

Contribute to the Dr. Wakefield Justice Fund at

We await the appeal.

Dan E. Burns, Ph.D., is the father of a 25-year-old son on the autism spectrum and the author of Saving Ben: A Father’s Story of Autism . Dr. Burns is a Contributing Editor to Age of Autism and is Adult Issues Liaison for AutismOne. He facilitates planning, vocational programming, and funding for An Independent Me, a charity in the Austin, Texas area for teens and young adults on the Autism Spectrum. Dr. Burns is focused on empowering parents to organize communities where their adult ASD children and friends can live, work, play, and heal.


Posted by Age of Autism at March 12, 2013 at 5:46 AM in Dan Burns , Dr. Andrew Wakefield Permalink

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