WASHINGTON TODAY: Book that aided killer at heart of court case
WASHINGTON (AP) _ Three people wound up dead when a paid killer followed a book’s advice on how to commit murder-for-hire. The triggerman and the man who hired him were caught and are paying for their actions.
But what about the book publisher?
If a federal appeals court ruling stands, the publisher of ``Hit Man: A Technical Manual for Independent Contractors″ could be forced to pay civil damages for selling a book that helped the killer.
Free-press experts say the decision to let the murder victims’ relatives sue _ if not overturned on appeal _ could erode protection given to other media under the Constitution’s First Amendment.
```Hit Man’ is, pure and simple, a step-by-step murder manual, a training book for assassins″ and therefore has no free-press protection, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said this month.
James E. Perry followed the book’s instructions in 1993 when he killed Mildred Horn, her 8-year-old disabled son, Trevor, and the boy’s nurse, Janice Saunders, in Silver Spring, Md. Perry was paid to do the deed by Mrs. Horn’s ex-husband, Lawrence Horn, who wanted to collect insurance money.
Perry is on death row. Horn was sentenced to life in prison.
The victims’ families want ``Hit Man″ publisher Paladin Press of Boulder, Colo., and its president, Peter Lund, to pay damages for aiding and abetting Perry on his murderous mission.
The book offers plenty of detailed advice on how to carry out a professional hit and get away with it, including what kind of knife to use and how to make a gun silencer. Regardless of the weapon used, the book counsels readers to keep quiet.
``You have dealt death as a professional. You don’t need any second or third opinions to verify your manhood,″ the book says.
Why might Paladin be vulnerable to a damage judgment for offering such information when the publisher of a news article is not?
It is a matter of intent, according to the 4th Circuit court.
A news story is intended to inform people, not encourage them to commit murder. A movie like ``Natural Born Killers″ aims to entertain, and therefore its producers cannot be held responsible if ``copycat criminals″ decide to imitate what they see.
But the appeals court decided Paladin Press can be forced to pay damages if a trial jury decides the ``Hit Man″ book aimed to encourage murder.
``No matter how you look at it, you can’t go around helping people commit crimes,″ said Howard Siegel, a lawyer for the victims’ families.
But Paladin’s lawyer, Thomas Kelley, said the book was meant to entertain its readers. A publisher has no way of knowing what someone who buys a book might decide to do, he added.
Under longstanding Supreme Court precedent, speech that advocates violation of the law is constitutionally protected unless it is ``directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action.″
The element of imminent action is missing from the ``Hit Man″ case, said Martin Redish, a Northwestern University law professor. The book was published in 1983, and Perry had plenty of time to study it before committing his crime.
Jane Kirtley of the Reporters’ Committee for Freedom of the Press said that having free-speech protection depend on the speaker’s intent could harm protections for other media.
Her group supported Paladin’s effort to fend off the lawsuit on First Amendment grounds, as did other mainstream media, including The Washington Post Co. and The New York Times Co.
``It’s not going to be the `NBC Nightly News’ but a tabloid TV show,″ Kirtley said. If the ``Hit Man″ case goes to trial, Paladin may not be held liable, but it will have to go through the time and expense of defending itself, she said.
But David Crump, a University of Houston law professor who filed a friend-of-the-court brief supporting the victims’ relatives, contends that unlike other media, the book is a ``direct incitement″ to commit a crime.
``If journalists attempt to defend this type of publication, they are in danger of losing the public trust, and I think they will do real harm to legitimate issues under the First Amendment,″ Crump said.
EDITOR’S NOTE _ Laurie Asseo covers the Supreme Court and legal issues for The Associated Press.