Merrell Williams, Jr.

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This article is part of the Tobacco portal on Sourcewatch funded from 2006 - 2009 by the American Legacy Foundation.

Merrell Williams, Jr. was the Louisville, Kentucky document review analyst who if often erroneously credited with having mailed the famous Brown & Williamson (BW) "Mr. Butts" documents to Stanton Arnold Glantz, Professor of Medicine at the Institute for Health Policy Studies at the University of California San Francisco. The papers arrived at Dr. Glantz's office on May 12, 1994 from an anonymous sender identified on the box only as "Mr. Butts." They described B&W's internal scientific research, marketing, and corporate policies from the 1960s to the 1980s, and included studies reporting on the tobacco industry's internal knowledge of the health effects and addictive properties of nicotine.


Merrell Williams was born in Monroe, Louisiana. [1]. He earned a Ph.D. at the University of Denver in 1971,[2] and was a legal analyst in Louisville, Kentucky in 1988 when he was hired to work on confidential, litigation-related document production for the law firm Wyatt, Tarrant and Combs (Wyatt) in relation to work the firm was doing for Brown & Williamson Tobacco Company (B&W) in product liability lawsuits. B&W hired Wyatt, who in turn hired Williams, to screen the documents for ones considered critically sensitive in the event of litigation. During the course of his work, Williams discovered that B&W knew as far back as the 1960s that nicotine was addictive, that the company had marketed cigarettes to children, worked to place cigarettes in big-screen movies and had stopped in-house research on the health effects of smoking. The documents intrigued and infuriated Williams. He was aware that the information, if revealed, could potentially be explosive. Williams secretly copied hundreds of pages of the documents to which he had access, and mailed backup copies to a college friend, Nina Selz, for safe keeping in case something happened to him. Williams said he had heart disease caused by cigarette smoking and hoped to use the documents to prove that cigarette companies have conspired to hide the dangers of smoking from consumers.[3] [4][5] Williams was laid off by Wyatt, Tarrant and Combs in 1992 .[6] Cite error: Closing </ref> missing for <ref> tag

Wyatt and B&W sued Williams after finding that he had taken copies of the documents. Williams retained defense attorney J Fox De Moissey of Louisville, KY. Alan Morrison of Public Citizen also assisted in his defense. In the summer of 1993, Williams' attorney returned a box of documents to the law firm with a letter demanding "recovery" for Mr. Williams's injuries.[7] In January 1994, Kentucky State Judge Thomas Wine ordered Williams to return all the documents, as well as any copies he may have made, to B&W and not to discuss them.[8]

The document analyst position at Wyatt, Tarrant & Combs, Louisville's largest law firm, paid Williams $9.00 and hour. The firm needed paralegals to help sort through 8 million pages of Brown & Williamson's internal company documents. Williams was asked in his first job interview if he had ever smoked cigarettes. "I smoke now," he said. "But I could quit." This response met with the law firm's approval and they gave him an I.D. badge. Later, he signed a confidentiality agreement promising not to disclose "any matter involving clients of the firm to persons outside of the firm." Williams took the job without a clue about the work, and was one of several dozen coders assigned to Brown & Williamson's research center. Documents dealing with addiction were coded DA. Anything to do with cancer got a DD code. Anything about ads that focused on smokers younger than 18 was coded ABEG. The point was to identify documents that would help or hurt tobacco lawyers in court.

Williams was a gifted actor. At Baylor University in Texas, he started his career as a director, actor and writer. When he won the part of a chain smoking ad executive in a play called A Whistle in the Night, he began chain smoking Kools through months of rehearsal. He hated tobacco. He hated smoking. "I had to do it the method way," he said. This was how at age 19 he became hooked on one of Brown & Williamson's leading brands. Williams earned a B.A., an M.S., and a Ph.D. He taught in 6 Universities from 1968-1981, and was both in professional and educational theatre for 30 years. He produced, directed, and performed in over 150 plays. He did both professional TV as a script writer in Los Angeles, and had Television and off-off Broadway credits. His training in acting served as a guide to his work at B&W. The coders were schooled in tobacco defense strategy to analyze documents "through the eyes of the plaintiff." How might the other side use a document to strike at tobacco? "With me, that's method acting," Williams said. Williams worked at B&W for over 2600 hours per year for 4.25 years, but he also spent hundreds of hours using the Louisville library "government documents library", and took voluminous notes each day from 1988-1993. He worried about surveillance cameras and two-way mirrors, surprise searches and magnetic alarm strips imbedded in documents, so he took notes. But he realized the obvious flaw with this method: without the documents no one would believe his notes and they would say he was crazy. In 1988, near the end of his first year as a coder, he bought a battered attorney's briefcase at a garage sale and walked out of the research center with a single document locked inside. No alarms went off. He removed and returned larger batches with the briefcase, but he still worried about being searched. He owned a waist slimming exercise girdle made of wet suit material and began wearing it under his shirt and tie. He would lift his shirt and stuff documents into the girdle. Knowing the value of a good hand prop, he would rip open a bag of chips as he passed the guard to cover the sound of the papers rustling in his girdle. The job at B&W came with a warning which was issued each day: any document which left the premises would end in prosecution, jail, and the ultimate conclusion which could have been worse than criminalization. One day, while at the water-cooler, Williams brought up the movie Six Days of the Condor where the "readers of sensitive CIA documents" were liquidated by a professional crew of killers. The thought never left Williams' mind. [9]

One morning he pulled into the parking lot before dawn. Lights were on in the document storage room, a guard silhouetted in the window. Williams thought of all the times he had come to the same room before dawn to return stolen papers. He felt like throwing up. His paranoia grew with each new stolen document. Williams decided to take precautions. He shipped a set of records to the Orlando home of psychologist Nina Selz, a long-time friend from his college days at Baylor. Williams contacted Richard Daynard, a leading anti-tobacco crusader and president of Northeastern University's Tobacco Products Liability Project. Williams spent months trying to get Richard Daynard into a face-to-face meeting, but Daynard was worried about traveling to Louisville, Kentucky. Finally, a meeting was arranged for Daynard to travel to Florida where Selz met him at the airport and brought him to Williams. Williams met with Daynard, and Daynard warned Williams he would go to jail and could be sued. He ended his meeting by saying "you're a good man." Williams thanked Daynard and said goodbye. From the first meeting, Daynard had only one solution. Daynard gave Williams the phone number of Morton Mintz, a retired investigative reporter who had written extensively about tobacco for the Washington Post. Williams and Selz knew long-time friend, Brizillian born psychologist, Louis Natalicio, who negotiated with both Daynard and others. A meeting was set. Williams met with Mintz and duriing a period of months, a draft and chapter was researched and written. The first draft of Intent to Deceive was originally called "The Tobacco Papers". Mintz was excited to be writing and creating again, but he was worried about how the book would be published. If the book could be published, it had to be cleared - but how? Having drafted a book outline, Mintz decided to consult with a group of lawyers which did advocacy work. He was accepted as a "client", a brief was written, and Mintz found he could be confronted with personal damages. He consulted Alan Morrison of Public Citizen for a final analysis of the Mintz liability. Morrison, who was working with Ralph Nader, wrote a brief and made the ultimate conclusion that Mintz' liability was so severe that he would be virtually destroyed. Mintz quit the project. Williams tried to inlist the help of Morrison, who said he would try to get a pro bono lawyer to help get the "documents" to Congress. He tried and failed. In February, 1992, Morrison dropped Williams as a client, and decided that he could no longer help. He wished him well. When DeMoissey, in 1993, took up Williams' cause, Morrison only began to find interest by going through Public Citizen's "clearing house" for merit. He joined DeMoissey as co-counsel for Williams in March, 1994. Oddly, Williams was asked by Ralph Nader in 1997, "Why didn't you come to us?" Williams answered, "I did." On February 11, 1992, Williams and two other workers (they were not 'paralegals') were fired. A date of termination included one month's notice. Williams worked until noon on March 13, 1992. On his last day, Williams packed his personal belongings in a box. He hid one last stash of documents under pictures of his children. He handed his office key to Ernest Clements, the supervisor. He asked "Do you want to check my box?" "No," Ernie said. Williams left, caught the elevator down, and left the I.W. Hughes Research Center. Apparently, nothing was suspicious and Williams concluded that the "firing" was to replace his higher paying job with a group just hired for less money. Williams' salary reached $26,000 a year. Williams was black-balled from any job in law. The Louisville Law Placement Bureau had closed, and the word was out that the B&W project was the "last job" for any person seeking employment in legal offices. Williams went on unemployment. In 1993, Merrell William's unemployment checks had run out and, as custodial parent of his children, he needed money. He lived and worked with Sherry Williams, his third wife, but he made very little money. He got a job as a trainee at a Mercury car dealership. In February, 1993, he spent three weeks in an enclosed "smoking room", filled with ambient contamination by smokers. Williams never was able to sell a car. Following a snowfall, Williams left his work at 9:00 PM, went home, and in the late hours of March 4, 1993, he experienced chest symptoms which Sherry, a Nurse, recognized as dangerous. He went to the hospital and needed a quintuple heart bypass which was performed on Williams on the afternoon of March 4, 1993. While the "chest cracking" surgery was a life-saver, Williams made note of the fact that this was proof of damages of coronary artery disease as a probable result to use as an open door to get into Court for personal injury. The documents, and the continued work on Intent to Deceive, were probably in Williams' view a substantial means of re-visiting DeMoisey's office for serious talks. From Williams recovery bed, DeMoissey received a phone call. In weeks that followed the surgery, Williams and DeMoissey began a series of weekly back porch discussions on how the purloined documents might fit into a lawsuit against Wyatt. If the cause of action was personal injury, the documents might be admitted as evidence. In a strange set of circumstances, the near death surgery provided DeMoissey an opportunity to take on Williams' case. DeMoissey's problem was clear: Williams held information in his head that proved the tobacco industry lied and failed to produce documents in Plaintiff cases and Congressional hearings. Specific to DeMoissey, he was certain to be challenged as to Williams' status as a client who had "attorney-client" privileged information. This was both "in the head", and, by the actions of Williams, contained in boxes of copied documents from the Brown and Williamson Research Project. DeMoissey could not look at the documents. He could discuss Williams "issues" but not the content of any documents. DeMoissey was bold but living in "tobacco country". Instantly, the idea of crisis in the stream of tobacco bubbas, and in the tobacco company profile, and, most certainly, in the silk-stocking law firm, Wyatt, was the obviously the sticking points. It was also very dangerous. However, in the weekly meetings, there was a constant "virus" associated with what the Louisville attorney perceived as his profession's fraud, and, Williams confirmed that "fraud vitiates all." While there were hundreds of reviewers in previous tobacco company document research projects (B&W last), not one single document had been leaked. Fox could not see or read the documents which Williams said he had. However, Williams' circumstances and many public documents, including Judge Sarokin's decision (Haines), let DeMoissey make his tentative decision. Finally, Williams found a bold attorney, surely knowing the dangers ahead, but unable to go outside the law. If the documents Williams claimed to have were "privileged", they were evidence. If Wyatt or Brown and Williamson criminalized Williams'act, they "evidence" would always be in the documents. The entire process of returning documents was to return what might have otherwise been considered "stolen", so DeMoissey's idea was to do what the law required, return the documents to Wyatt. As for Williams' cause of action in personal injury, the return of documents merely set the action apart from what Williams' work at B&W was concerned with. By returning a sealed "box", claimed by Williams to belong to Wyatt, there was an end to any action that would treat DeMoissey as disqualified for reading possible attorney-client documents, or, better, since Williams returned the documents, what was the wrong? If a ring is removed from your finger, but not taken, it isn't "theft"; when the ring is returned, there is no theft. So, the strategy protected DeMoissey's tort, and was intentionally meant to cause Wyatt to respond. On July 9, 1993, J. Fox DeMoissey had a courier service deliver to Wyatt Williams' "sealed box". DeMoissey cleverly seperated the issues in paragraphs: Williams was returning what he took, and - by the way - he was damaged by Brown and Williamson's Kool's. Williams, unnamed as his client, "was exposed to information concerning the tobacco industry" while working for the law firm. DeMoissey wrote, "Being a smoker (and a smoker of Brown & Williamson products) my client became tremendously distressed over the information available to him. Apparently, this information devastated him, not only on a personal and direct basis (i.e., smoking), but also in a moral and "civil consciousness" basis. In other words, my client was shocked at the fraud and hoax being perpetrated upon the government and the American people. DeMoise revealed that his client had removed and copied documents. Having read his clients employment contract, which forbade him from taking confidential records, the attorney was returning them. De Moissey also wrote a demand letter. Both Williams and DeMoissey left town following the delivery to Wyatt. They returned two weeks later, and there were only a few phone messages. Apparently, Wyatt was only vaguely interested in the so-called Brown and Williamson documents and they were not needlessly upset - it in fact caused little anxiety, but weeks followed and some talks began between a friend at Wyatt and DeMoissey. This went on for almost three months during the summer of 1993. Wyatt said the documents meant nothing, were insignificant. In the fall of 1993, DeMoissey and Williams were concerned about security issues. Williams had completed the manuscript, Intent to Deceive, but DeMoissey could not risk reading it. While Wyatt denied that any documents were important, DeMoissey decided to up the ante. Williams claimed that he knew the documents were important, and so he had written and footnoted a select number of documents to support his reasons. In the same manner of the document courier delivery, DeMoissey and Williams consulted about Williams' book. DeMoissey suggested that Williams "seal" the book and stamp it as copyright by US mail. He would then accept two copies - one for his desk, which was sealed and copyrighted, and the other was to be sent to Wyatt. He took both sealed envelopes on September 26, 1993, and put them in his desk, phoned a courier service, and delivered one sealed envelope to the negotiators at Wyatt. It had been nearly 3 months since Wyatt held the sealed box. DeMoissey sent a cover letter which said that his client's "narrative" expressed reason enough to believe that the "box" sent on July 9, 1993, had meaning. On Tuesday, September 29, 1993, Wyatt's lawyers held an ex parte meeting with Judge Thomas Wine in Jefferson County Court; a hearing was set for 11:00 AM. DeMoissey was not noticed of the hearing until 5 minutes prior to the Court's action. In an hour long hearing, Wyatt left Court with a restraining Order/gag Order styled Maddox et al vs Unkknown Defendant as Represented by J.Fox Demoissey. Williams was served by 7 different agencies, one actively taking the process papers to Williams at 4:00 PM on September 29, 1993. The Order was complete in many ways, but particularly made notice that no attorney was allowed to speak with Williams or he to any attorney, effectively preventing Williams' rights to counsel. This remained an Order of the Court for all Civil and Criminal causes for over four years. Williams wrote his own countersuit on March 3rd. 1994 as a pro-se advocate, witnessed by his own attorneys who could not consult or speak with him. This 4-year ruling was upheld by the Kentucky Supreme Court and still today is a baffling decision for legal scholars. Major news and feature accounts appear in the following: Los Angles Times, New York Times, Washington Post (Style), Wall Street Journal, the feature film "Dispatches", ITV, UK, 60 Minutes, AMA Journal, and books, including Assuming the Risk, Jogando Com e Mafia Tobaco, Frontline's Features (with Lowell Bergman). It took Brown & Williamson little time to figure out the anonymous client was Merrell Williams. While it may be assumed that Williams found himself being called a thief on the front page of the Louisville newspaper, Williams has never been the subject of civil or criminal Orders which explain such claims. In 1994, the Department of Justice attempted to intervene in Williams' TRO, but Judge Thomas Wine refused to allow the Justice Department the right to Interview Williams under a standing CID. Instead, Jeffrey Wigand, with B&W counsel, apparently was interviewed with an identical CID on January 26, 1994. No charges were filed against B&W. In April, 1994, following the DOJ hearing for lifting the TRO on Williams, a change occured which allowed Williams to move from Louisville to Mississippi, where his family lived. On the assumption of meeting solely with Don Barrett in Jackson, Mississippi, Richard "Dickie" Scruggs appeared and offered Williams a badly needed job. Williams returned to the home of his parents and his relatives, Ocean Springs, Mississippi, on April 14, 1994, lived on his boat, and was eventually hired by Dickie Scruggs. Scruggs learned of "a set of documents" which were held in Orlando, but were not specifically known to be held by any particular person. When Williams was granted a guarantee that he would have sole rights of custody, and any use would have to be passed through his attorney, Williams revealed that Nina Selz held both his book and many documents. When Scruggs discovered this, he flew to Orlando, obtained the documents in the name of Mike Moore, Attorney General of Mississippi, and, acting as an Assistant Appointee of the Attorney General of Mississippi, began to copy documents meant to be housed in a bank vault. Shortly after, Williams was told that Mike Moore would interview him. Williams knew nothing of documents sent to Stanton Glantz or the New York Times. The documents received by Stanton Glantz are often called "The Brown and Williamson Documents". The documents were used as the substance of the AMA edition of July 19,1995, and Stanton Glantz'book, The Cigarette Papers. Williams received (with others) the 1998 Citizen Activist Award from The Gleitzman Foundation, and, with Stanton Glantz, Ph.D., The Joe A Callaway Award for Civic Courage, which states, "Merrell Williams, Jr., the first Tobacco Whistleblower." [10]

Merrell Williams' lawsuits: Maddox vs Unknown Defendant aka Maddox vs Williams, Jefferson County District Court, Commonwealth of Kentucky, September 29, 1993; Brown and Williamson Tobacco Company vs Merrell Williams, M&S Enterprises, John Does 1-10, Biloxi, Mississippi, Federal Court, February 14, 1995. Williams' Counterclaims to "Maddox", March 4, 1994, and "Brown and Williams/Williams/Biloxi Fed. 1996. Both lawsuits were settled by mutual agreement between Merrell Williams and Wyatt-Brown and Williamson, 1997. The settlement terms are solely with Merrell Williams and the record of the settlement is sealed.{{}


  1. Telephone conversation between Merrell Williams and Anne Landman on September 17, 2008
  2. Wall Street Journal, June 20, 1994
  3. Louisville, Kentucky Courier-Journal May 10, 1994
  4. Findlaw, United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, Argued May 11, 1995 Decided August 15, 1995, No. 94-5171, Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp., Appellant v. Merrell Williams, et al., Appellees, Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of Columbia (94ms0171)
  5. Dinyar Godrej, Smoke Gets In Your Eyes New Internationalist, July, 2004
  6. Wall Street Journal, June 20, 1994
  7. Wall Street Journal, June 20, 1994
  8. (Louisville, Kentucky Courier-Journal, May 10, 1994
  9. Merrell Williams Merrell Williams' web page, undated. Accessed October 3, 2009
  10. Parts of this piece were excerpted from The Thief and the Third Wave, by David Barstow, St. Petersburg Times, April 6, 1997

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