Thomas Byrd wants to make one thing very clear: He never told police who arrested him for biting off a chunk of his wife’s face that he was Batman.
But in a $29 million lawsuit, he claims that everyone thinks he did because of a news report published at the time—and that he has been tormented and even assaulted behind bars because of it.
“Flat out lie,” Byrd, 44, wrote in the federal defamation suit he filed against Google while serving 24 years at the Centralia Correctional Center in Illinois after pleading guilty to kidnapping and attacking his estranged wife.
The source of Byrd’s angst is a 2009 post in the Riverfront Times—which appeared to be based on an article that was published in the Belleville News-Democrat—headlined “Joker Bites His Wife’s Face, Tells Cops He’s Batman.”
In the post, a prosecutor described Byrd’s gruesome face-biting attack on his wife as “something out of a horror movie.”
Byrd was under a restraining order to stay away from his wife at the time, following convictions on domestic battery and burglary charges for stealing from his wife and daughter. But the day after Byrd was released from jail on the burglary charge, he broke into his wife’s home by throwing a paving stone through a glass door, climbed the stairs to her bedroom, sexually assaulted her, and forced her into a car, according to the post.
“According to Granite City Police Detective Mike Parkinson, Byrd told the victim he was going to kill her,” the post says. “That’s when she grabbed the wheel and tried to crash the car. Byrd stopped in St. Louis and attacked her, biting a chunk out of her face. Parkinson testified that Byrd treated the investigation as ‘a joke,’ giving his name as Batman.”
Parkinson, who has since been promoted to lieutenant, did not respond to a request for comment from The Daily Beast.
In the suit filed in federal court in California, Byrd demands the post be taken down, $15 million in punitive damages and $14 million in compensatory damages, as well as any additional amount the court deems appropriate for the post that Byrd says “left me open to verbal Harassment by inmates and officers.”
“I’ve had to fight 11 1/2 years from Article. Inmates having their family Google Thomas Byrd Illinois case. Psychological harm. Take meds. Defamation of Character by Google Head Quaters [sic] by running a lie across its Platforms. Running a false statement. Saying I told police I’m Batman,” he wrote in the suit.
Byrd first filed suit against Google earlier this year. However, a judge held it up because Byrd apparently neglected to sign the complaint. He refiled the paperwork on April 13, seven days before the court-imposed deadline.
Google had no immediate comment. The writer of the Riverfront Times post declined to comment on pending litigation, but also said he didn’t even remember writing it.
The Prison Litigation Reform Act, which was enacted in 1996 as part of the “Contract With America” championed by former Rep. Newt Gingrich, has made it far more difficult for prison inmates to bring, and win, civil lawsuits, according to a 2016 study by University of Michigan law professor Margo Schlanger. While many suits filed by prisoners involve deeply serious matters, such as access to COVID-19 vaccinations and allegations of torture and abuse by guards, others have been rightfully decried as frivolous: One Nevada inmate accused authorities of violating his civil rights after being given creamy peanut butter instead of chunky.
However, one major issue stands firmly between Byrd and a victory in court. Under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, Google—or any other online entity that hosts or republishes third-party content—cannot be sued or otherwise held legally responsible for the material in things like blog posts and news articles. And although there are certain exceptions related to criminal acts and intellectual property claims, Section 230 “creates a broad protection that has allowed innovation and free speech online to flourish,” according to the nonprofit Electronic Frontier Foundation.
In Byrd’s case, he stated that he first heard about the “Batman” story from his daughter in San Diego, who was googling his case. He claimed he had been assaulted by another inmate over the Batman issue, and asked his daughter to search his name online to see what came up.
“I had officer’s [sic] and inmates come up to me about the article saying things like ‘I’m Batman.’ I was assaulted about the Article, I had 7 screws put into my ankle from the assult [sic]. I’ve had a few more fights about the Article. I will never be able to walk without Pain from my Ankle. Thanks to Google’s running a lie on its Platforms.”
The blog post has also impacted Byrd’s relationship with his children, he claimed in a separate affidavit.
Many people not in the digital media business don’t necessarily have a deep understanding of the way online content distribution works, and that is especially true of a prisoner who hadn’t had access to the internet for more than a decade, Ava Lubell, a media lawyer at Cornell University’s First Amendment Clinic, told The Daily Beast.
As for Byrd’s defamation claim, Lubell referred to the Fair Report Privilege, which varies by state but protects journalists who publish statements made during official government proceedings, such as a court trial. In Byrd’s case, the fact that he called himself Batman was reported in the article as being part of a police officer’s testimony, which Lubell believes would likely fall under this umbrella.
Further, she explained, the article in question didn’t suggest Byrd had lost his grip on reality and actually believed he was Batman, but made it clear to any reasonable reader that Byrd was uncooperative and had sarcastically given cops an obviously false name. Nonetheless, “Biting off a part of someone’s face is not something I would always connect with every single marble being present,” said Lubell.
While Byrd stands little chance of winning his case, the suit does bring up the larger issue of how an incarcerated person can ever hope to protect their reputation from behind bars. Regardless of whether Byrd, who was charged with a slew of very ugly crimes, still has a reputation to “protect,” there are thousands of people in prison who are in fact innocent. And unlike those on the outside with access to Twitter, Facebook, and beyond, Lubell notes that prison inmates have “so many fewer avenues available” to correct the record.
In February, Byrd submitted paperwork to the court showing a $1.01 balance in his prison trust fund account; he had been denied a waiver of the usual $400 filing fee in a previous attempt to sue Google because he had already had three or more suits previously dismissed. The so-called three strikes provision is meant to prevent incarcerated plaintiffs from filing unnecessary complaints.
However, U.S. District Court Judge Edward Davila in March allowed the case to proceed without any upfront payment by Byrd, with fees to be debited from his prison account at a later date.
Byrd was unable to be reached for comment.