by Vanessa McGrady
by Vanessa McGrady
Three people were murdered when a killer-for-hire allegedly followed some of the instructions in a book called Hit Man: A Technical Manual for Independent Contractors. The victims’ families sued Paladin Press, the book’s publisher, and in May of 1999, Paladin’s insurance company settled for undisclosed millions rather than go to trial. The aftermath of the grisly killings left yet another victim: the First Amendment, its life force slowly ebbing with each successive attack on free speech.
The plaintiffs argued that the book aided and abetted the murderer, and that Paladin had knowingly marketed the book to criminals. Paladin knew nothing of the murder plot, and stood by the fundamental principle of the First Amendment — that all books, no matter how unsavory the subject matter, are protected. Acting on that information is an entirely different matter, and consequences are the sole responsibility of the person who commits the act.
The fact that Perry did not follow many of the instructions in the book never made it to the light of the courtroom. For example, the book suggests running a rat-tail file down the barrel of the gun to change ballistic identifiers. A file was found at the murder scene, but it was too big to fit in the gun barrel. The file showed evidence of fingerprints and a hair — neither of which belonged to Perry.
Immediately after the settlement, Paladin yanked the book out of print. Jon Ford, Paladin’s editorial director, called the settlement "economic censorship."
David Harrison, one of Paladin’s attorneys, said, "Paladin hates the way the case was left. On the other hand, [publisher] Peder Lund’s focus was, ‘I’ve got a business here that supports twenty-five families. Do I sacrifice twenty-five families to go on with the suit?’ "
The insurance company’s interest did not lie in the fate of the First Amendment. Had Paladin been a publishing behemoth, things likely would have gone differently. Paladin’s insurance company balked at going to court again, figuring expenses for a lengthy trial in federal court, plus the posting of a bond in case they lost and appealed, would have cost much more than the settlement. There were also rumblings that the recent Littleton, Colorado, shootings sparked a national anti-violence sentiment, one that could have swayed a jury.
A larger publisher with immense coffers wouldn’t need to rely on an insurance company to pay the expenses, and could have taken the case all the way to the Supreme Court if needed. Suppose the case went to trial, Paladin lost, and a jury awarded the victims, say, $20 million. In order to appeal, Paladin would then need to post a bond with the court clerk for $20 million, in cash and/or assets. The bond would serve two purposes: to ensure payment in case of a judgement, and to keep the plaintiffs from seizing assets while the case was pending on appeal.
In this case, the insurance company was only required to post a one million dollar bond, leaving the rest up to Paladin. Had they lost the appeal, Paladin would have gone bankrupt.
The slippery slope of censorship
The slippery slope of censorship
Where does this leave the First Amendment protection? Paladin attorney Stephen Zansberg said that the settlement itself doesn’t directly affect the law, but the case as a whole is important. "It’s clearly an effort to extend the net of responsibility beyond those who take actions and break the law," he said.
In terms of the First Amendment, the real damage and the real implications occurred in this case not so much with the ending of the trial, but with the 4th Circuit Court saying there had to be a trial.
By opening the doors for a continuance of the trial, the court left the right to protection based on the First Amendment up for new interpretation. Other literature and films that describe what could be considered dangerous activities — whether they be novels, action films, military handbooks, or how-to-books for cops — may not enjoy the immunity the First Amendment once guaranteed.
"We’re looking carefully at our catalog," Paladin’s Ford said. Of the 800 books listed, about 70 are in precarious positions. Scrutinized subjects include explosives, hard-core martial arts, and any kind of destructive devices. "If we want the company to survive, we have to take a hard look."
Ford says that though the settlement definitely made an adverse impact on the company, there’s no way to tell yet how it will affect the publishing industry as a whole. "The plaintiff’s lawyers who were the engineers behind this case claim this decision will have no effect on other publishers or the First Amendment. Our supporters say it definitely will. I say, only time will tell."
Copycat crimes are nothing new, and, up until now, the "inspiring" books and movies have been protected, for the most part. These days, perhaps in an over-reaction to an increasingly violent culture, victims and prosecutors are looking to spread the blame around to a peripheral cast of characters. In today’s culture, where it’s de rigeur to proudly declare one’s victim status — bad childhood, too much TV, Twinkie O.D. — negative, inanimate influences share the heat, diluting personal responsibility.
Paladin’s head is no longer alone on the chopping block. Hollywood filmmaker Oliver Stone is heading to court after a Mississippi couple adopted techniques from Stone’s movie Natural Born Killers to murder a man and seriously injure a woman. As in the Paladin case, the Supreme Court refused to dismiss this case, so it will go to trial. And a $130 million lawsuit filed by parents of students killed in a Kentucky school shooting claims that the blood-and-guts computer game Doom, the movie The Basketball Diaries, pornographic Internet sites, and more than twenty other media companies transformed a normal teen-age boy into a murderer.
"If you are going to take the risk of putting this information out there pretty brazenly, you are going to help people to do harm to other people. They should now know they are going to be expected to own up to their actions in court," Marshall said.
But Paladin vehemently denies that the book’s intention was to abet a criminal. They had no way of knowing James Perry was going to use the information to murder people any more than Budweiser foresees some yahoo chugging a six-pack and subsequently running down an order of nuns out for a morning stroll.
In the court stipulation, a list of facts agreed to by both parties, Paladin stated that the company marketed the book to an audience that included mystery writers, law-enforcement officers, Walter Mittys, and criminologists. Paladin also acknowledged that criminals and would-be criminals could be among the general readership, but its products are plastered with disclaimers that the books are to be used for informational purposes only. In fact, a warning before Hit Man’s table of contents reads, in part, "Neither the author nor the publisher assumes responsibilities for the use or misuse of information contained in this book. For informational purposes only!"
Marshall calls the disclaimer a "wink." He said, "It’s a lawyer’s Band-Aid that doesn’t prove anything."
When is a "how-to" book a how-to book?
When is a "how-to" book a how-to book?What, then, would happen if Hit Man’s instructions were repackaged into a novel — the book’s original form — or an assassination-avoidance guide for high-level government officials?
Where does that leave the US government, the largest publisher of how-to-kill manuals? "When we talk about the military, the rules go out the window," admitted Marshall.
Censorship is yet another tool in the dumbing-down of America by a power structure that relies on a populace too lazy or ignorant to think independently.
"I’m not sure if too much information is a good thing," says Marshall. And therein lies the problem.
Information leads to education. And education, no matter how potentially dangerous an idea may be, is the matter of thoughts, on its own just an inert, intangible and benign substance.
In some cases, information may be used for nefarious purposes. But the kind and quantity of information each adult consumes should be a personal decision, not spoon-fed in rations by the government-as-parent.
By supporting the banning of Hit Man, or any other "offensive" book, Americans relinquish the very freedoms they supposedly cherish. By opening the door to censorship, the Supreme Court keeps free expression standing out in the rain, waiting for the protection of the First Amendment umbrella that may or may not show. l
By supporting the banning of Hit Man, or any other "offensive" book, Americans relinquish the very freedoms they supposedly cherish.
1983 — Paladin Press publishes Hit Man: A Technical Manual for Independent Contractors. More than 13,000 copies are sold.
January 24, 1992 — James Perry orders Hit Man: A Technical Manual for Independent Contractors from a Paladin Press catalog.
1992 — Believing he will inherit a $1.7 million insurance settlement, Lawrence Horn hires Perry to kill his ex-wife, Mildred Horn, and his disabled son, Trevor.
March 3, 1993 — James Perry travels from Detroit to Silver Spring, Maryland. He shoots Mildred Horn and Trevor’s private nurse Janice Saunders, and disconnects Trevor’s breathing tube. All three are left dead. Police search Perry’s home and find textbooks on criminal forensics and a Paladin Press catalog. An investigation reveals Perry ordered Hit Man and How to Make Disposable Silencers, although neither book is found in Perry’s home.
November 1995 — Perry is convicted and placed on death row; six months later, Horn is sentenced to life in prison.
January 1996 — The families of Mildred Horn and Janice Saunders file a lawsuit against Paladin Press. In September, U.S. District Court Judge Alexander Williams, Jr. throws it out, finding no liability on Paladin’s part.
November 1997 — The 4th US Circuit Court of Appeals reinstates the lawsuit, ruling that the book is not protected by the First Amendment because, "Hit Man is, pure and simple, a step-by-step murder manual, a training book for assassins."
April 4, 1998 — The Supreme Court refuses to hear the case, allowing the lawsuit to continue.
May 21, 1999 — Three days before the case is to go to trial in a federal courthouse in Greenbelt, Maryland, Paladin’s insurance company settles the case for undisclosed millions. Paladin takes Hit Man out of print.