If Books Could Kill...
The families of three Maryland murder victims lost the first round in a wrongful-death suit against Boulder's Paladin Press, but their attorneys vow to keep their teeth in Paladin's nether regions for years to come.
"We will continue to litigate this case until we reach the last court and the last motion to reconsider is denied," asserts attorney Howard Siegel of Rockville, Maryland. "We will never stop until we run out of places to go."
At the heart of the matter is a slim "how-to" paperback Paladin first published in 1983 titled Hit Man: A Technical Manual for Independent Contractors. Police and FBI investigators claim that self-described street preacher James Perry bought the book in 1992 and took it literally, killing three innocent people ("Death Sentences," March 21).
The connection between the book and the murders surfaced late last year when Perry was tried in the March 1993 murders-for-hire of flight attendant Mildred Horn, her paraplegic eight-year-old son, Trevor, and Trevor's nurse, Janice Saunders, at the Horn home in Silver Spring, Maryland. According to Maryland prosecutor Robert Dean, in carrying out the crimes, Perry had followed at least 22 deadly tips lifted directly from Hit Man, including shooting his victims in the eyes and using an AR-7 rifle.
Perry was found guilty and sentenced to death. Six months later Horn's ex-husband, Lawrence, went on trial. Investigators say that Lawrence Horn, an unemployed recording engineer, hired Perry to kill his ex-wife and young son so he could get his hands on a $1.7 million trust belonging to the boy. (The money resulted from a medical malpractice suit brought on Trevor's behalf.)
Lawrence Horn was convicted in April of this year and sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.
In between those two convictions, the victims' families filed what could be a precedent-setting lawsuit, claiming that Paladin and its president, Peder Lund, were guilty of aiding and abetting murder by publishing and distributing Hit Man--as well as a book on making silencers that Perry had purchased before the slayings. The manuals, Siegel and co-counsel John Marshall argued, "were specifically intended to encourage, facilitate, instruct, counsel and advise murderers as to proven methods to effectuate their criminal acts."
The attornies say they knew that they were stepping into new legal territory with the suit and so prepared their clients for a long battle. U.S. District Court Judge Alexander Williams Jr. heard oral arguments in the case on July 22; on August 30 he found for Paladin, dismissing the suit.
But even though Williams appeared more receptive to Paladin attorney Tom Kelley, a First Amendment attorney from Denver who claimed that the Constitution protected his client's right to free speech and free press, the judge made his repugnance for Paladin and its book clear in a 28-page opinion.
"Paladin engaged in a marketing strategy intended to attract and assist criminals and would-be criminals who desire informa-tion and instructions on how to commit crimes," Williams wrote. "In publishing, marketing, advertising and distributing Hit Man and Silencers, Paladin intended and had knowledge that their publications would be used, upon receipt, by criminals and would-be criminals to plan and execute the crime of murder for hire, in the manner set forth in the publications."
But it is not enough to advocate or teach murder, Williams wrote. Because Paladin did not direct James Perry to kill Mildred and Trevor Horn and Janice Saunders, and because Perry did not do so immediately after reading the book, Williams ruled, the book was constitutionally protected.
"The court read Hit Man in its entirety," he wrote. "Its content is enough to engender nausea in many readers. This court, quite candidly, personally finds the book to be reprehensible and devoid of any significant redeeming social value. Nevertheless, however loathsome one characterizes the publication, Hit Man simply does not fall within the parameters of any of the recognized exceptions to the general First Amendment principles of freedom of speech."
Marshall says he and Mildred Horn's family were "disappointed by the judge's failure to appreciate some of the legal distinctions in the case, [but] the reality is that whether or not we had won on this motion, the likelihood is that the losing party would ask for an appeal immediately, anyway.
"And this issue, because it's so important and so fresh in the legal sense, we knew it had to go to the Court of Appeals and that it may well have to go to the Supreme Court to get a definitive answer."
Kelley, for his part, is hardly gloating.
"I was gratified," Kelley says, "that the court was willing to keep the starch in the First Amendment, even in the face of a political environment where people are trying to put a limitation on what can be said. I'm happy with the way it's gone so far. But I know it's going to go on appeal."
Sure enough, on September 3, the first day the courthouse was open after Williams's ruling, Siegel and company filed a motion asking the court to reconsider and amend its judgment, the first step in establishing an appeal.
"[Mildred Horn's] family knew this would be a long-haul process going in," says Marshall, "and they are not backing off one inch. They're going to take this one to the mat. Their lawyers are going to take this one to the mat. Until then, Mr. Lund will have a fight on his hands."
Siegel will personally see to that. The attorney had scheduled an October 15 date to depose Lund--just in case Siegel had been successful in his arguments before Williams. And while that date will now have to be postponed, Siegel is champing at the bit, ready for his shot at Paladin's founder. "I want to be across the table from Peder Lund," Siegel says. "I want him to answer depositions. And I'll get him. Sooner or later, it's gonna be me and him."
And the case, which already has gained public attention, is likely to get even more. Lund did not respond to Westword's request for an interview, but he is speaking to the press: Kelley confirms that his client last week granted an interview to Mike Wallace of 60 Minutes.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Westword's biggest stories.
- Reader: Bars Will Lose a Ton on Drink Sales If They Let People Smoke Weed
- Thirty Mind-Blowing Murals at the Heart of Project Colfax
- The Mexican Says Adiós to Denver