Court Clears Way for Trial of ‘Hit Man’ Book Publisher
Refusing to shield book publishers and filmmakers from all liability for crimes committed by others, the Supreme Court on Monday cleared the way for the Colorado publisher of the “Hit Man” manual to stand trial because of murders committed by one of his readers.
Rejecting the publisher’s contention that the 1st Amendment protects him from a claim for damages, the justices let stand a federal appeals court ruling last year that called the 130-page book a “step-by-step murder manual, a training book for assassins.”
For the record:
12:00 AM, Apr. 22, 1998 For the Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday April 22, 1998 Home Edition Part A Page 3 Metro Desk 1 inches; 33 words Type of Material: Correction
“Hit Man” case--A story in Tuesday’s Times on the “Hit Man” case before the U.S. Supreme Court was missing the word “not” in a key sentence. It should have said the lawyers in the case do not expect to reach a settlement before the trial starts.
Because the book was intended to instruct would-be murderers, not just to entertain them, it falls outside the freedom of the press protected by the Constitution, the lower court said.
Monday’s decision sets the stage for a jury to decide whether sisters of a Maryland woman who was killed by a paid hit man should receive monetary damages from Paladin Press, a mail-order firm that specializes in martial-arts books.
“The simple message is you can’t commit a crime just because you are part of the media,” said Howard Siegel, the Maryland malpractice lawyer who filed the novel lawsuit. “This is a case about media arrogance.”
Siegel argued that the book and its publisher had aided and abetted the murders by instructing the killer, James Perry of Detroit, on how to sneak into a house and quietly murder three people. Siegel filed the suit on behalf of the sisters of Mildred Horn, a flight attendant who was shot in the head in her Silver Spring, Md., home on March 3, 1993. Also killed were her disabled son Trevor and an all-night nurse, Janice Saunders.
Police linked the killings to Lawrence Horn, the woman’s ex-husband and a Hollywood sound engineer who had been out of work. With his wife and disabled son dead, Horn stood to inherit the $2 million malpractice settlement that Siegel had won for the family after Trevor had suffered brain damage in a local hospital.
Horn and Perry were linked through a series of calls made from pay phones near Horn’s Hollywood apartment, including several on the night of the murders. When agents raided Perry’s home, they found that he owned two books from Paladin. One was “Hit Man: A Technical Manual for Independent Contractors.” Another told how to make a silencer for a firearm. Prosecutors said the killer had carefully followed the instructions in both books.
In separate trials, Perry was convicted and sentenced to death and Horn was convicted and given life in prison. Siegel then filed his civil suit against Paladin and its publisher, Peder Lund.
At first, a federal judge dismissed the lawsuit under the 1st Amendment. It was revived by the U.S. appeals court in Richmond, Va., in a strong opinion that condemned the book publisher and the national press groups that defended him.
Appealing to the Supreme Court, the publisher said he did not know or intend that someone would use the “Hit Man” to kill someone. “On its face, the book resembles a comic book more than a ‘technical manual,’ ” he said. About 13,000 copies of the book were sold, he added.
He was supported by several 1st Amendment advocates and a friend-of-the-court brief filed on behalf of the Horror Writers Assn. and several media organizations, including ABC, NBC and the Newspaper Assn. of America. They contended that all manner of films, crime books, mystery novels, scientific journals and military manuals could be subjected to lawsuits under the precedent set in the “Hit Man” case.
But Siegel said these fears were exaggerated. Perry’s killing was not a “copyright crime” based on a crime novel, he said, but rather a murder that was aided by a detailed instruction manual.
Without comment or dissent, the justices refused to hear the appeal (Paladin Enterprises vs. Rice, 97-1325). This action sets no national precedent, although the lower court ruling is sure to be cited in future cases.
“In all honesty, I can’t say we’re surprised,” said Washington lawyer Lee Levine, who appealed the case for Paladin. “Any time you have a heinous crime and a sympathetic victim, it is easy to give the plaintiffs the benefit of the doubt at this stage.”
He added that the publisher will still try to get the lawsuit dismissed by a trial judge before a jury hears evidence. If the suit indeed goes to a jury, Levine said it will mark the first time in American history that a publisher has stood trial because of crimes committed by a reader.
The lawyers for both sides said Monday that they expect to reach a settlement before trial.
In other cases involving the 1st Amendment, the court:
* Rejected free-speech challenges to anti-stalking laws in Virginia and the District of Columbia. One man who made harassing phone calls to a woman and another who sent harassing letters said the laws went too far and should be struck down. The lower courts disagreed and the justices refused to hear their appeals in the two cases (Parker vs. Virginia, 97-1062, and Jett vs. United States, 97-7137).
* Rejected a free-press challenge to a Louisiana judge who barred reporters from interviewing jurors about their deliberations after a trial had ended. Judges have been shielding jurors more of late and appellate courts have generally refused to intervene (in Re: Capital City Press, 97-1369).