The Volokh Conspiracy

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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."


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.