The triple murder that took place on this quiet, suburban cul-de-sac of Colonial brick homes makes for a gripping tale of money and evil.
An out-of-work Hollywood sound engineer named Lawrence Horn conspired to have his ex-wife and brain-damaged son killed so that he could inherit a $2-million trust fund intended for the boy. He might not have been caught except for a single pay phone call to his Hollywood apartment from an all-night Denny's restaurant near his ex-wife's home on the night she, their son and an overnight nurse were killed.
Checking motels near the Denny's, police found that James Perry, a Detroit "street preacher," had registered at one a few hours before the murders, paid with cash and checked out at dawn. FBI agents then traced 138 calls between pay phones near Perry's house in Detroit and Horn's Hollywood apartment.
Now this tale of true crime may also make for a true landmark in 1st Amendment law.
When police raided Perry's home, they learned he had purchased a 130-page mail-order guidebook for murder, "Hit Man: A Technical Manual for Independent Contractors." Prosecutors showed Perry followed 22 of the book's recommendations in committing the 1993 murders.
A novel lawsuit, filed on behalf of the dead woman's sisters, poses a question that ultimately will have to be answered in the Supreme Court: Can a book publisher be held liable for aiding and abetting murder? Or does the 1st Amendment completely shield those who put out not only murder manuals but also books on how to make bombs, poison gas and deadly chemicals that can be used to kill hundreds of persons?
The "Hit Man" book, which has sold 13,000 copies since 1983, is published by Peder Lund, an ex-Green Beret who fought in Vietnam. His Paladin Press, a mail-order house based in Boulder, Colo., specializes in military and self-defense books and includes manuals on how to make bombs, silencers and sniper weapons.
The suit will be considered today by a U.S. appeals court in Richmond, Va. Lawyers for both sides say they will appeal to the high court if they lose.
Lund has a phalanx of powerful allies. Many of the nation's biggest media companies, which would never consider publishing Lund's manuals, are nevertheless rallying to his cause out of fear that an adverse court ruling would damage a free press.
The "Hit Man" manual, listed in the publisher's catalog at $10, does not hide its author's cold-blooded purpose. It is "an instruction book on murder," author "Rex Feral" (a pseudonym) announces in the first sentence.
"The professional hit man fills a need in society and is, at times, the only alternative for personal justice," Feral continues. The killer need feel "no twinge of guilt," since "the hit man is merely the executioner, an enforcer who carries out the sentence."
Paladin Press' catalog also includes "Homemade C-4: A Recipe for Survival," a book that achieved particular prominence last week when the jury in the Oklahoma City bombing trial was told that defendant Timothy J. McVeigh had ordered a copy. The catalog says C-4 is used "for blowing up bridges [and] shattering steel."
Police found a copy of Paladin's catalog at Perry's home. Contacting the publisher, they learned that Perry had bought two books--"Hit Man" and "Silencers"--and had sent Paladin a check. They never found his copy of "Hit Man."
Gun Touted in Book Is Cited
During Perry's trial, prosecutors showed he used the AR-7 rifle recommended by "Hit Man" in murdering Mildred Horn and her son's overnight nurse. The AR-7 "breaks down for storage [and] is easy to carry or conceal," the book says. He also drilled out the serial numbers as recommended.
"At least three shots should be fired to insure quick and sure death," the book advises. "Aim for the head, preferably the eye sockets. Close kills enable you to determine right away if you have successfully fulfilled your part of the contract."
Mildred Horn and Janice Saunders died from three shots fired at close range into their eyes. Young Trevor was suffocated in his bed.
Police traced money orders from Horn to Perry totaling about $5,000. They could not determine how much Horn had promised to pay Perry once he obtained the trust fund, which he never received.
Perry was convicted and sentenced to death. Horn was later convicted and given life in prison.
Outraged by what he had heard at the trial, Howard L. Siegel, a Rockville, Md., malpractice lawyer who won the settlement that established young Trevor's $2-million trust fund, conceived the lawsuit. Siegel says he was convinced a publisher should not be allowed to make money on murder manuals.
"I don't want to hear about the 1st Amendment. You don't have a right to help criminals commit crimes," Siegel said. "This is no different than writing down the combination of the safe and giving it to a guy so he can rob a bank. No one would say that was protected by the 1st Amendment."
Aiding and abetting a crime is a separate criminal violation under Maryland law and can be the basis for civil liability too, he says.
But Siegel knows he is fighting far more than a single publisher of military-style manuals.
"The 1st Amendment has the most powerful lobby around. It's unified. They always stick together no matter what," Siegel said.
As if to confirm his point, many of the nation's premier media companies have lined up on the side of "Hit Man's" publisher.
Backing 'Speech at the Fringes'
A coalition of media groups, in a friend-of-the-court brief supporting Paladin Press, includes ABC Inc. and the Walt Disney Co., America Online Inc., the Assn. of American Publishers, the Magazine Publishers of America and such newspapers as the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Baltimore Sun, which is a subsidiary of the Times Mirror Co., the publisher of the Los Angeles Times.
"Allowing this lawsuit to survive," their brief asserts, will do "serious and substantial" harm to the 1st Amendment. "It is most often the speech at the fringes of American life that defines the freedoms for those at the center," it says.
Lund agrees the fate of the 1st Amendment rests with his case.
"If we don't prevail, the 1st Amendment is in tatters," he said in a phone interview. "A negative decision will affect all of the media: fiction and nonfiction, the Internet, TV and Hollywood. We're the little guys, but if we lose, the big companies will soon be forced into court by ambulance chasers like Siegel."
(Siegel refers to Lund in conversation as the "scum on the dark side of the 1st Amendment.")
Lund's attorneys argue that if he can be sued, so can authors of murder mysteries or moviemakers whose scenes of crime and violence are copied by real-life killers.
"The material in this book is available from other sources. Perry could have done the same thing without the 'Hit Man,' " Lund says. "And once you start censorship, there's no way to draw a line."
But Siegel has also won a key ally in Rodney A. Smolla, a respected 1st Amendment scholar at the law school of the College of William and Mary.
Usually a staunch advocate of free speech and freedom of the press, Smolla switched sides and joined the case against Paladin after reading "Hit Man."
"This book has no reason for existence other than to assist people who want to commit murder," he said. "Once that became clear, then it was also clear this was not about freedom of speech, but about participation in murder."
Lawyers on both sides agree the Supreme Court has never decided a case like this one.
The most commonly cited precedent is a 1969 ruling involving Clarence Brandenburg, a Ku Klux Klan leader from Ohio. He was arrested after some racist ranting at an outdoor klan rally, but the high court overturned his conviction in a brief, oft-quoted opinion.
Adopting a version of the "clear and present danger" standard proposed by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, the high court in Brandenburg vs. Ohio said the free-speech guarantee protected a radical speaker from prosecution unless he was inciting others to engage in "imminent lawless action."
Since books, by their nature, are not inciters of immediate criminal acts, some lawyers say all books--at least those that are not obscene or defamatory--are protected by the 1st Amendment.
Intent Is Viewed as Crucial Element
Next week, however, Smolla will try to convince the appeals court that a clear and principled distinction can be drawn between murder manuals and books that are designed to entertain and inform.
"Intent is the key element," Smolla argued. "If you intend to assist someone to commit a crime, that is not protected by the 1st Amendment."
In the preliminary skirmishing, Siegel and Smolla won potentially significant concessions from Paladin's lawyers. Anxious to avoid probing discovery motions and then a trial, Paladin's legal team agreed to accept several stipulations suggested by Siegel in exchange for a quick ruling on whether the 1st Amendment shielded the publisher from all liability.
In one, the defendants admitted they "engaged in a marketing strategy intended to attract and assist criminals . . . who desire information and instructions on how to commit crimes." A second says the "defendants intended and had knowledge that their publications would be used by criminals to plan and execute the crime of murder for hire."
Paladin's lawyers, disputing Smolla's claim that these stipulations tilt the case in his favor, note that others make clear that criminals are not their only readers. Law enforcement experts, mystery writers and "Walter Mittys" have purchased "Hit Man," they say. Moreover, they add, the publisher did not know James Perry and had no idea he planned to murder Mildred Horn.
So far, Paladin's tactics have worked. U.S. District Judge Alex Williams Jr. heard the case last year and quickly ruled the 1st Amendment shielded the publisher from all liability.
Although "Hit Man" is "reprehensible [and] is enough to engender nausea in many readers," the judge said, it is protected speech under Brandenburg vs. Ohio. Judge Williams said he was not willing to "create a whole new category of speech unprotected by the 1st Amendment."
A ruling against Paladin certainly would threaten a whole category of speech, but some experts in terrorism and the militia movements say it is a category that deserves to be threatened.
They are referring to "how-to" books on explosives, lethal chemicals, poison gas, germ warfare and even nuclear weapons. While these publications are not seen in most bookstores, they are readily available through mail-order houses, such as Paladin.
Neal Livingstone, a terrorism expert who lives in Washington, has collected bookshelves full of what he calls "mayhem manuals"--1,600 titles, including "Undetectable Hand Grenades," the "Poor Man's Nuclear Manual" and a Paladin book, "Homemade Semtex," the powerful, hard-to-detect explosive that destroyed Pan Am Flight 103 over Scotland.
Other books include the recipe for sarin, the deadly gas that was used by a Japanese terror group in the Tokyo subway, and the even more deadly VX gas.
"These books have no purpose other than to teach you how to maim and kill," he said.
Federal Reach Said to Be Limited
The power of the 1st Amendment is so great, however, that federal officials assert they cannot even monitor publications or computer transmissions that describe bomb-making and poison gases.
"We know this stuff is out there, on Web sites and whatnot, but what can we do?," said FBI spokesman Steve Berry. "You have 1st Amendment rights here. There is no law against this material, and we're not in the censorship business."
After the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) tried to make it illegal to disseminate information on explosives if the distributor knows it will be used for criminal purposes.
Although Feinstein called hers a "common-sense" amendment, critics in the House stripped the provision from the anti-terrorism legislation on free-speech grounds. She says she may reintroduce the bill this year.
While the "mayhem manuals" remain a concern, many experts say the Internet poses a greater danger for assisting terrorists and mass killers.
Richard Hrair Dekmejian, a terrorism expert at USC, worries that an attack like the Oklahoma City bombing will be repeated.
"I'm more afraid of mass killers now, of poison gas and bombings," he said, because of the rise of the militia movements.
"There are limits, and I would favor censorship of information on how to build bombs or make poison gas," he said. "I don't think that deserves 1st Amendment protection."
After studying the many murder manuals in circulation, Livingstone says he too has concluded the free-speech defense has been pushed too far.
"Remember, Justice Holmes thought it was legal to prevent someone from shouting 'Fire!' in a crowded theater," he said. "So why is it illegal to prevent someone from teaching you how to blow up the theater?"