Rice v. Paladin Press (‘‘Hit Man’’ Case), 940 F.Supp. 836 (D.Md. 1996)
In Rice v. Paladin Enterprises, Inc., often called the ‘‘Hit Man case,’’ the core of the plaintiffs’ claim was that the publisher of a murder manual entitled Hit Man: A Technical Manual for Independent Contractors had aided and abetted murder when the instructions in that manual were used by a contract murderer as the blueprint for three murders. The plaintiffs claimed that the publisher had marketed the manual to attract and assist criminals, and that it knew and intended that the manual would be used, upon receipt, by real murderers to plan and execute killings.
The U.S. Court of Appeals Fourth Circuit held that a viable cause of action in tort for aiding and abetting murder existed against the publisher, and that if the allegations of the plaintiffs were true, the First Amendment did not insulate the publisher from liability. Following the Court of Appeals ruling, the publisher settled the case rather than go through a jury trial, agreeing to cease marketing the book, and paying the plaintiffs an undisclosed sum in money damages.
For the purposes of testing the First Amendment issue, the publisher had stipulated in a motion for summary judgment that it marketed the manual to attract and assist criminals, and that it knew and intended that the manual would be used, upon receipt, by real murderers to plan and execute killings. The murder manual was originally published in 1983, but the murders at issue did not take place until 1993. The alleged murderer apparently purchased the murder manual in 1992, several months before the killings. The Court of Appeals held that in these circumstances the First Amendment did preclude the imposition of liability.
In the course of its ruling, the court engaged in an extended discussion of the ‘‘incitement’’ standard set forth Brandenburg v. Ohio (1969) and whether that standard could or should be applied to the fact pattern presented, engaging in a close examination of the alleged role that the murder manual played in the killings. On the night of March 3, 1993, readied by the instructions in Hit Man and steeled by its ‘‘seductive adjurations,’’ the Court noted, the ‘‘hit man,’’ James Perry, brutally murdered Mildred Horn, her eight-year-old quadriplegic son Trevor, and Trevor’s nurse, Janice Saunders, by shooting Mildred Horn and Saunders through the eyes and by strangling Trevor Horn. Perry was a contract killer, a ‘‘hit man,’’ hired by Mildred Horn’s ex-husband, Lawrence Horn, to murder Horn’s family so that Horn would receive the $2 million that his eightyear- old son had received in settlement for injuries that had previously left him paralyzed for life. At the time of the murders, this money was held in trust for the benefit of Trevor, and, under the terms of the trust instrument, the trust money was to be distributed tax-free to Lawrence in the event of Mildred’s and Trevor’s deaths. The court stated that in ‘‘soliciting, preparing for, and committing these murders, Perry meticulously followed countless of Hit Man’s 130 pages of detailed factual instructions on how to murder and to become a professional killer.’’
Throughout the Hit Man litigation, both sides expended considerable energy over the motivations of the publisher. On one level, the publisher’s motivation was simply to sell as many books as possible and make as much money as possible. The plaintiff’s readily conceded this point, stipulating that in order to increase revenues, the murder manual was marketed to many readers who were not planning to use it to kill people. The plaintiffs argued, however, that one of the publisher’s motivations was to market and sell the book to criminals and would-be criminals like James Perry who would indeed use it to commit murder, and that this was enough to defeat any First Amendment defense. The court agreed, observing that ‘‘every court that has addressed the issue, including this court, has held that the First Amendment does not necessarily pose a bar to liability for aiding and abetting a crime, even when such aiding and abetting takes the form of the spoken or written word.’’
The Court thus accepted the argument of the plaintiffs that the Brandenburg requirement of ‘‘imminence’’ need not be satisfied in those instances in which the speaker provides substantial detailed assistance in the commission of a crime with the intent that the information will be used to commit the crime, holding that
Paladin’s astonishing stipulations, coupled with the extraordinary comprehensiveness, detail, and clarity of Hit Man’s instructions for criminal activity and murder in particular, the boldness of its palpable exhortation to murder, the alarming power and effectiveness of its peculiar form of instruction, the notable absence from its text of the kind of ideas for the protection of which the First Amendment exists, and the book’s evident lack of any even arguably legitimate purpose beyond the promotion and teaching of murder, render this case unique in the law. In at least these circumstances, we are confident that the First Amendment does not erect the absolute bar to the imposition of civil liability for which Paladin Press and amici contend.
RODNEY A. SMOLLA
References and Further Reading
- Smolla, Rodney. Deliberate Intent: A Lawyer Tells the True Story of Murder by the Book. New York: Crown Publishers, 1999.
Cases and Statutes Cited
- Brandenburg v. Ohio, 395 U.S. 444 (1969)