Serial Killer's Contract Lawsuit over Author's Promise to Visit and Call Can Go Forward

"[T]he plaintiff could fairly prove that the defendant got what she wanted under the contract and then cut the plaintiff loose."

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From Howell v. Howard, decided by Judge John D. Moore (Conn. Super. Ct.) several weeks ago:

The plaintiff [William Devin Howell] makes the following relevant allegations in the first count. The defendant, an author of true crime stories, contacted the plaintiff in June 2015. At that time, the plaintiff was a suspect for the "alleged" rape and murder of several women. The parties entered into an oral contract through conversations that occurred between the summer of 2015, and November 2018. A more specific agreement was entered into in November 2018.

Pursuant to this agreement, the defendant agreed to visit the plaintiff twice a year in prison and to accept phone calls from him every other week. In consideration for this, the plaintiff agreed to give the defendant exclusive information, documentation, and to provide interviews to her so that she could write, publish, and promote a true depiction of the plaintiff's life and crimes. The plaintiff and defendant met in prison and on the telephone regularly. During those calls and personal meeting, the plaintiff provided the defendant with extensive, detailed, and accurate information as to the plaintiff's life and criminal activity.

The plaintiff satisfied his obligations under this agreement and the defendant wrote, published, and promoted a book about the plaintiff called "His Garden: Conversations with a Serial Killer." For a time, the defendant lived up to her end of the deal, by meeting with the plaintiff twice a year and speaking to him every other week by phone when the plaintiff was allowed visits in person or to make calls. However, after certain events occurred, the defendant failed to satisfy her obligations. These events sprung from entries that the defendant made in her blog.

The plaintiff makes the following allegations in regard to the alleged breach of contract. In her blog, the defendant promoted, among other things, the book about the plaintiff. The defendant's blog entries had over 160,000 views. The blog entries contained untrue statements about the plaintiff that cast him in a negative light, including that the plaintiff had "no job skills besides basic landscaping, no education," and that the plaintiff "dropped out of High School at the age of fifteen." The plaintiff became aware of these untruths in December 2019, and also found out that they had been widely viewed. After the plaintiff told the defendant that he knew of these lies, the defendant breached their agreement by refusing to accept the plaintiff's calls and refusing to visit the plaintiff. The plaintiff has been damaged by the defendant's breach of the agreement….[Plaintiff also alleges that] the defendant's actions are a breach of the covenant of good faith and fair dealing….

[I]n deciding a motion to strike, the court should view the facts alleged "in a broad fashion, not strictly limited to the allegations, but also including the facts necessarily implied by and fairly provable under them." Further, the court must "construe the complaint in the manner most favorable to sustaining its legal sufficiency." In reading the amalgamated complaint in this fashion, the court finds that the plaintiff has alleged the following.

The defendant approached the plaintiff. In exchange for exclusive information about notorious crimes, the defendant offered the plaintiff her time and social interaction. The defendant offered to take phone calls from the plaintiff every other week and to visit him in prison twice a year.

Any human being would understand the value of and the need for such social interaction to someone like the plaintiff who will be incarcerated for the remainder of his life. The defendant and the plaintiff met regularly and the plaintiff provided the defendant with "extensive" and "detailed" information as to his crimes. The defendant authored a book based upon this information and promoted it on her blog. The defendant has benefitted by receiving (1) money from book sales, (2) industry recognition, and (3) an award. After the parties disagreed about statements made on the defendant's blog that the plaintiff claimed were knowingly untrue, the defendant breached the agreement and no longer takes the plaintiff's calls nor visits him in prison.

Count one sets forth allegations of a breach of an oral contract. The defendant has chosen not to attack its legal sufficiency. This contract, as all others, includes "an implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing …" Construing the allegations of bad faith found in the complaint in a broad fashion, and most favorably to sustaining their legal sufficiency, as the court must when deciding a motion to strike, the court finds that the plaintiff could fairly prove that the defendant got what she wanted under the contract and then cut the plaintiff loose.

The defendant knew that the plaintiff provided her with exclusive and detailed information about the murders in exchange for having a human being interact with him on a regular basis. The defendant's decision to violate the contract could be construed as a refusal to perform a contractual obligation from an interested or sinister motive [and thus a breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing].

There was also a defamation claim and a couple of related claims, which you can read more about in the decision.

NEXT: "Judicial Opinions Serve Many Functions, and One of Those Is Journalistic"

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  1. I’m not sure the defamation claim will succeed. How could the plaintiff probe damages? Does ghe false information danage in a material way?

    It would be hard to imagine someone willing to hire or associate wifh the plaintiff knowing the true information, but not willing to based on the false information.

    What basis for damages could there be? Some reputations are libel-proof. A serial rapist-murderer would seem to be one of them.

    Greater infamy may sell more books. But I don’t think public policy supports an action for damages for reducing ones infamy. And I think that’s the only effect this alleged libel could have.

    1. Is there no recovery for emotional distress?

      1. It should be against policy to reward crime.

        1. But then how will politicians get rich?

        2. But it is also in the public interest for crimes to be exposed, and a book about a serial killer may well contain revelations of crimes for which he was not convicted, or details that give closure to the associates of his victims. An understanding of what forms and motivates criminals is also in the public interest. Finally, I would argue that even the vilest criminals retain some rights to freedom of speech, which is a basic aspect of human dignity.

          1. The judge dismissed one of the claims – unjust enrichment, on grounds that an unjust enrichment claim for proceeds relating to crime violates public policy. The court noted that the defendants had not raised this issue.

            The libel issue, as noted below, is related but somewhat different.

            There would still have been a breach of contract claim.

        3. Yes, it should

          Which is why she should never have been allowed to cut that deal with the criminal in the first place

          But, since she did, she should be punished for breaking it

        4. This doesn’t reward crime. The emotional distress he would be claiming is not a result of his crime, but the result of the breach of the author’s promise.

    2. The court allowed the libel claim for libel per se to go through on grounds that claiming a person lacks skill in their profession is libelous per se. But what lawful profession could a convicted serial rapist-murder have? The court failed to scrutinize the “chosen profession” element or ask if the plaintiff alleged facts to satisfy it in this case.

      Even though lack of skill in ones profession is libel per say, it still only applies to those who are actually capable of having a profession. Those with a sufficiently bad reputation to be professionless are incapable of being libeled in their profession.

      And it’s limited to lawful professions. Contract killers can’t use courts to claim damages for statements that aren’t effective assassins. To allege libel per se based on deriding skill in his profession, plaintiff needed to identify a lawful profession he remained qualified for given the true facts about his situation.

      Perhaps it will still get dosmissed on summary judgment. But for a serial rapist-murderer, I think the claim should be dismissed at the pleadings and the court’s time not further damaged. If the plaintiff wanted a reputation the law could recognize as worth defending, he should not have serially engaged in what society regards as some of the most serious crimes conceivable.

      1. The libel I’m thinking of is that he only has a grade school education — if, in fact, he has more.

        1. But how does this inhibit his ability to work in a professuon, the alleged basis for libel? It’s hard to imagine a lawful profession that would hire an imprisoned serial rapist but would then balk upon learning that he only has a grade school education.

          In libel per se, you don’t have to prove specific damages. But you still have to prove that the statements satisfy the elemwnts that make the libel a per se one.

          1. My attitude is that libel was introduced to eliminate dueling — in the past whe snomeone offended your honor, you challenged him to a duel. A lawsuit is slightly more civilized — and the damages from defamation extend beyond earning ability.

            See: https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/andrew-jackson-kills-charles-dickinson-in-duel

            1. It’s a question of history, not attitude.

  2. At that time, the plaintiff was a suspect for the “alleged” rape and murder of several women

    Is that it was even alleged open and in doubt?

  3. IANAL but I always was taught that an oral contract is not worth the paper it’s written on.

    1. It is generally harder to prove the existence and content of an oral contract than a written contract, but in general, oral contracts are just as valid. There are certain exceptions, notably the types of contract falling under the Statute of Frauds, such as contracts for the sale of land. Contracts that cannot be completed in one year are classically required to be in writing. Whether that gives the defendant in this case an out depends on what the law is in Connecticut.

      1. In general, contracts of indefinite duration are not considered to be contracts incapable of completion in one year, so this contract would not be required to be in writing unless Connecticut law is different.

      2. I always found it interesting that “promises to marry” were included in the statute of frauds (at least in Maine)….

        1. Yes, that’s in the original English law. Also other marriage-related contracts, such as prenups.

          1. That makes more sense — I was thinking of https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7MHSI_Z1MWw

            As an aside, we had longer attention spans back then — I don’t remember it being this long…

      3. A dramatic example is when Pennzoil offered $112.5/share for 43% of Getty Oil and Texaco countered with an offer of $125/share for all of Getty Oil. The Getty Oil board of directors accepted the Texaco offer, but Penzoil was able to convince a jury that the Getty board of directors had verbally accepted its offer before Texaco made its counteroffer. The jury awarded Penzoil $10.53 billion, the largest jury award in history, purely on the basis of a verbal contract.

  4. We knew who he was at 3. Preschool students identified him as someone to avoid. He committed hundreda of crimes a year to age 14. He was protected by the pro-criminal toxic lawyer profession. He should have been executed at 14 before he got violent and good at it. Without reading this depressing post, I guarantee he had 100’s of victims. Why? To generate worthless fees for lawyer make work. Now, we have more lawyer make work. This judge and his previous other judges that protected a serial rapist and killer need their asses beat by the victims’ families. To deter. We are sick of these rent seeking scumbag lawyers.

    1. Facile Fascist’s Fulminations!

    2. The stinking lawyer toxic profession allowed this predator to run through our maidens like a scythe through a field of wheat. You scumbag lawyers caused every rape and death after the first. We have to arrest you, try you an hour. Then execute the entire lawyer hierarchy in the court basement.

      And now we are discussing a breach of contract, you fucking traitors to this country.

    3. Pro-criminal toxic lawyer here; your ravings motivated me to give the next client a discount. I’ll dedicate the courtroom victory to you.

  5. Does the law in Connecticut recognize the “Libel-Proof Plaintiff” doctrine?

    https://mtsu.edu/first-amendment/article/1816/libel-proof-plaintiff-doctrine

    If it does, I’m having a hard time imagining a more obvious case to which it could be applied.

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