Crime

Murderous Prose

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"Neither the author nor the publisher assumes responsibility for the use or misuse of information contained in this book," says a disclaimer at the beginning of Hit Man: A Technical Manual for Independent Contractors. Think again, says a lawsuit that charges Paladin Press with assisting in a triple homicide.

Paladin, which specializes in controversial books, has sold about 13,000 copies of Hit Man. One of them was purchased by James Perry.

A year later, on the night of March 3, 1993, Perry murdered Mildred Horn; her 8-year-old quadriplegic son, Trevor; and his nurse, Mildred Saunders, at the Horns' home in Silver Spring, Maryland. Perry had been hired by Mildred's ex-husband, Lawrence Horn, who hoped to collect the $2 million their son had received in a malpractice settlement after the boy suffered brain damage at a local hospital.

Both men were convicted; Perry is awaiting execution, and Horn is serving a life sentence. But the victims' relatives believe justice requires that Paladin also pay for Perry's crimes, since he closely followed instructions from Hit Man, a 130-page book in which the pseudonymous Rex Feral offers advice to would-be contract killers.

Among other steps recommended by Feral, Perry put stolen license plates on his rental car; used an AR-7 rifle from which he drilled out the serial numbers; attached a homemade silencer described in the book; shot two of his victims in the eyes; collected the spent cartridges; took valuables from the home to suggest a robbery; and scattered pieces of the weapon along a highway.

Although no one at Paladin had any knowledge of the murder plot, the victims' relatives argue that Perry's use of the book makes the publisher liable for aiding and abetting his crimes. In 1996 a federal judge dismissed their lawsuit, finding that publication of Hit Man was protected by the First Amendment. He cited the 1969 Supreme Court decision Brandenburg v. Ohio, which says a state may ban the advocacy of illegal behavior only if it is intended and is likely to produce "imminent lawless action."

Last year the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit overturned that decision. It said Brandenburg does not apply to a book like Hit Man, which goes beyond "abstract advocacy" to offer detailed instructions for murder. The Supreme Court recently declined to hear Paladin's appeal, so the case is scheduled to proceed.

If the plaintiffs win, writers and publishers will be on notice that they may be held responsible for the actions of their readers–a prospect that is bound to have a chilling effect on speech. After all, criminals have been known to lift techniques from fiction. Hit Man itself notes that "almost any good mystery or murder story can provide some ingenious new methods of terrorizing, victimizing, or exterminating." And press coverage of one crime may inspire others–the recent string of school shootings comes to mind.

The lawsuit against Paladin says this case is distinguished by intent: Even though the publisher insisted that Hit Man was "for informational purposes only," it knew the book could be used by criminals.

Still, it's doubtful that people like James Perry were the main audience for Hit Man. If they were, somehow the thousands of murders they committed have gone unnoticed.

Comments on Amazon.com suggest that readers do not necessarily take Hit Man literally. "This rather dated book," says one, "was obviously not written by a professional, but rather by one deeply engrossed in older cloak-and-dagger novels." Says another, "Good old [Doyle] and Hitchcock did it years ago. Feral just wrote about it in a controversial and clever way."

Trying to show that Hit Man can be used for innocent purposes, Paladin suggests that it might interest authors, criminologists, and law enforcement officers. But the two most plausible audiences it cites are "persons who enjoy reading accounts of crimes and the means of committing them for purposes of entertainment" and "persons who fantasize about committing crimes but do not thereafter commit them."

For these readers, the presentation of Hit Man as "an instruction book for murder," rather than a novel or a straightforward nonfiction account, is an important part of the experience. That may be pathetic or perverse, but in a free society it shouldn't be illegal.