Death Sentences

Some people would say that the hit man is an emotionless, cold-blooded killing machine; that he has no fear and no belief in God. On the contrary, a hit man has a wide range of feelings. He may be excruciatingly tender towards his woman. He may be extremely compassionate towards the elderly or disabled. He may have a strong aversion to the useless killing of wildlife. He may even be religious in his own way.

--Excerpt from Hit Man

When James Perry crept into a darkened house in Silver Spring, Maryland, pulled out a silencer-equipped AR-7 rifle, assassinated two women and suffocated a physically and mentally handicapped eight-year-old boy, he was following a script of sorts. Everything had been laid out for him, down to the smallest detail. He didn't leave the scene until he'd carefully run a rat-tail file down the bore of his rifle to foil police ballistics experts and ransacked the house to make it appear as if the murders were part of a robbery.

Perry was so careful in covering his tracks that detectives didn't find a single piece of evidence, not a hair or a fiber, linking him to the crime scene. It was a textbook case of murder--in every sense of the word.

That's because Perry's crime was lifted chapter and verse from a slim paperback published by Boulder's Paladin Press and purportedly written by a professional killer. The book, Hit Man: A Technical Manual for Independent Contractors, explains in detail how to find potential customers, what weapons to use in carrying out a "hit," how to best dispose of a body and how to avoid being caught.

But Perry was caught, as was the man who allegedly employed him, former Motown recording engineer Lawrence Horn. And the fact that prosecutors found 22 similarities between the advice given in Hit Man and the techniques Perry employed in the March 1993 slaying of Horn's ex-wife, Mildred "Millie" Horn, their son, Trevor, and Trevor's night nurse, Janice Saunders, was not lost on the victims' families. Late this past December, after Perry was convicted of three counts of first-degree murder (Horn goes to trial on similar charges next month), the families filed suit in federal court accusing Paladin Press and its owner, Peder Lund, of aiding and abetting murder. (The author of Hit Man, who uses a nom de plume, has not yet been identified and is not named in the federal suit; that, however, is expected to change.)

The suit, the first of its kind, is expected to test the boundaries of the First Amendment and could bankrupt the Colorado publishing company. Already, champions of free speech across the country are predicting dire consequences should the suit be successful.

"One of the things that disturbs me," says Julie Lucas, executive director of the First Amendment Congress, a Denver-based coalition formed to educate the public about free speech issues, "is the fact that they are blaming this book for the actions of a criminal. That brings up a whole host of disturbing issues. I think they're trying to shift the blame from the actions of the criminal to the book being the criminal itself. That's a disturbing precedent to set."

Should Paladin lose the case, says attorney Bruce Sanford of the Washington, D.C., law firm of Baker and Hostetler, it would "pose an enormous danger to all sorts of works." Included on that list, he says, are books by Tom Clancy and movies by Oliver Stone. Sanford claims it could even affect the way reporters cover crime stories. "The point is," he says, "the information didn't kill. Information is not inherently evil or bad."

But attorneys for the victims' families say the First Amendment was never intended to protect an entrepreneur's guide to murder and mayhem. "The point is that you're responsible for what is likely to happen when you give somebody a plan to commit murder," says plaintiffs' attorney Howard Siegel of Rockville, Maryland. "And somebody used this book to do exactly that."

"Hit Man is a solicitation for criminal behavior, and it provides instructions for criminal behavior," agrees Siegel's Maryland co-counsel John Marshall. "And it's our belief that the First Amendment does not and should not protect that kind of speech."

The case, the plaintiffs' attorneys contend, will hinge on intent--and they maintain that Paladin and Lund "specifically and maliciously intended, and had actual knowledge that [the books] would be used by murderers."

Sanford argues that the book is clearly fictional, "almost a fantasy. It's hard to take it seriously," he says.

To that, Marshall has a ready reply: "Mr. Perry did not think it was a joke."

Some people would argue that in taking the life of another after premeditation, you act as God--judging and issuing a death sentence. But it is the employer, the man who pays for the service, whatever his reason might be, who acts as judge. The hit man is merely the executioner, an enforcer who carries out the sentence.