Albion Monitor /News

Murder Following Textook Directions is Constitutional Issue

by Nick Rosen

Murder by the book
James Perry read the book closely and followed the instructions. He rented a motel room close to the victims' home, used this home as the site of execution and rented a car to drive there, all as "Hit Man: A Technical Manual for Independent Contractors" advised.

He shot the women from a short distance, far enough away to keep their blood off his clothing, but close enough to "know, beyond any doubt that the desired result has been achieved." Bullets were fired at the eyes (to maximize efficiency), their lethal consequence veiled by a silencer constructed with the aid of another Paladin book, How to Make a Disposable Silencer. Perry then stole a Gucci watch and credit cards from the victim's purse, not because he needed money -- he would live well off the $130,000 assassination fee coming his way -- but to make the murders look like a robbery, just as the manual suggests. Finally, faithful to Hit Man's instructions, Perry dismantled the gun, scattered the parts, left the scene and kept his mouth shut, avoiding any urge to brag of his exploits in a local bar.

When Perry was tried in 1995, he testified to using these methods for killing Margaret Horn, her quadriplegic son Trevor and his nurse, and not getting caught -- 27 steps in all -- which he had learned from Hit Man, a book published by Paladin Press.

Would require authors or filmmakers to convince a judge or jury that it was not their intention to help criminals
Besieged by tragedy, the family of victims Margaret and Trevor Horn lashed out at Paladin owner Peder Lund, nailing the publisher with a wrongful-death lawsuit for an unspecified amount. Given the fortitude of the First Amendment's protection of free speech and press, U.S. District Judge Alexander Williams dismissed the suit. To reach his decision, Williams drew on the caselaw of Brandenburg vs. Ohio, which stipulates that speech is not protected when it is used as "incitement of imminent lawless action."

From Klansmen to communists, America's legal history has protected the spoken or written encouragement of unlawful acts since the Brandenburg decision, and for good reason. After all, the right to publicly challenge laws is what keeps our society vital, just and lawful. Without such protection, for example, those who encourage non-violent protest would find themselves without a legal forum for their political viewpoints.

But when the Paladin case went to appeal in January, the horrific murders at the Horn residence eclipsed Constitutional freedom. A three-member panel of judges reversed Williams' ruling and remanded the case to a jury trial.

Despite the fact Paladin maintains that Hit Man is "tongue-in-cheek," the defendants admitted for the purposes of the hearing that they "intended and had knowledge that their publication would be used ... by criminals and would-be criminals to plan and execute the crime of murder for hire, in the manner set forth in the publications."

While this sounds like a fatal admission on their part, Paladin's attorney Thomas Kelley explains that the stipulation was necessary to simplify the case, so that the court could decide whether the publisher's right to free speech could be judged by its intent, or whether you have to look at the speech itself to judge that intent.

Whether or not you understand this confusing principle, the precedent of the court's ruling is clear: Any publisher, author or filmmaker who is accused of aiding or abetting a criminal with their words or expression will have to convince a judge or jury that it was not their intention. And the unspoken intention within that work can be inferred by the adjudicating body.

Had Hit Man never existed, the three innocents would probably still have been murdered, if not so efficiently
Consider Johnathan Swift's essay A Modest Proposal, which ironically suggests that, to alleviate the horrible poverty of 18th-century Ireland, the people of that country should sell their children for food. If Swift lived in post-Rice vs. Paladin America, he could resonably believe that a jury would extrapolate that infanticide was his genuine intention (as many of his contemporaries did) and charge him with aiding and abetting anyone who actually killed their children. Due to his concern, the essay may never have been written, and the world would be deprived of a valuable work.

The court's opinion suggests that the precedent set by its decision will not endanger other speakers or authors who can demonstrate the "legitimate and lawful purpose for (their) communications." But what do they mean by "legitimate?"

Whether or not you want to be a killer, you may not be able to put down Paladin's assassination manual -- the opening pages follow a skilled hit man off an airplane (on which he slept, "having learned long ago that few people will try to make conversation with a sleeping man"), through a well-rehearsed transformation of identity in a bathroom stall and on toward his next kill. The narration grips you like a good Bond movie. As Americans, many of us court violent fantasy as a harmless antidote to our otherwise pedestrian lives. Murder is exciting, but the 13,000 people who bought Hit Man are not all murderers; just as all of the millions of Swift's readers did not sell and eat children.

To protect its constitutional right to excite us, Paladin was joined by 21 First Amendment champions and media organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union, NBC and The New York Times, all as "friends of the court." In a brief filed to protest the decision, the "friends" warn that "if left uncorrected, the panel's unprecedented and sweeping holding will chill a vast quantity of heretofore protected speech, and will, contrary to the clear dictates of the First Amendment, thereby deplete the stock of information from which the public may draw." In other words, the implications of the panel's decision goes way beyond whether or not Hit Man is "legitimate," or even if it makes good toilet reading. Such a legal precedent could rob our society of untold creative and informational works if would-be authors fear prosecution.

Besides the issues of intention or value, a few incontrovertible facts remain. Firstly, neither Lund nor the book murdered those people. It was Perry, a two-bit killer bereft of morals, deluded and greedy. Almost as greedy and immoral as Lawrence Horn, who bought the murders of his wife and son in order to get his hands on the $2 million settlement for the accident that crippled 8-year-old Trevor. The evil will of these men was preordained. Had Hit Man never existed, the three innocents would probably still have been murdered, if not so efficiently.

Secondly, the book hardly falls under Brandenburg's specification of "imminen(ce)." Perry committed the murders long after he bought the book, and indeed, immediate action would defy the anonymous author's operating theory: plan thoroughly, get to know your target, leave no room for mistakes.

And finally, if we are to judge the morality of this manual, we must turn our legal scrutiny to any number of works in our culture: recent movies like Grosse Pointe Blank, in which John Cusack plays a lovable contract killer who returns to his hometown to win his old sweet heart and mingles murder with moonlight kisses. What about Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers? Tarantino? The U.S government is America's greatest instructor of lethal violence, and has itself published a number of death manuals -- like Explosives and Demolitions and Booby Traps -- through Paladin Press, for sale to the general public.

This latest decision in the Hit Man case could prove sturdy. If the appellate court denies the defense's request for another hearing, Paladin will have to go to the nation's highest court. If they decide to hear the case (which they may not), it is hard to say which way they will rule. "When it comes to the Supreme Court," says Mark Silverstein, the Colorado ACLU's free speech expert, "you never know."

Failing a favorable Supreme Court ruling for the defense, the case would then go to trial, "which would be a tough case given the tremendous sympathy for the victims," says Kelley. For your average God-fearing jury, perhaps, the First Commandment comes before the First Amendment.

This article first appeared in Boulder Weekly

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Albion Monitor March 3, 1998 (

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