Wakefield vs. Brian Deer, Fiona Godlee and the BMJ: Dispatches from the Front
Posted Mar 01 2013 12:00am
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
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
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
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.
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 www.drwakefieldjusticefund.org/
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