The argument soon to be under way in a Maryland courtroom: Can a book publisher be an accomplice to murder for printing a "how-to" murder manual?
Such a book, titled "Hit Man: A technical manual for independent contractors," may be on trial in U.S. District Court in Greenbelt because a hired killer named James Perry supposedly used it as a step-by-step guide to carry out a notorious triple murder in Maryland.
"These manuals were published with the express intention to encourage and facilitate the commission of murder," says Washington lawyer Howard L. Siegel, who represents a family suing the publisher of "Hit Man," the Boulder, Colo.-based Paladin Press. "Paladin marketed these manuals on a nationwide scale to attract and then assist criminals and would-be murderers in every state."
Siegel contends that Paladin Press -- which also publishes books on how to dispose of dead bodies and how to make C-4 explosives -- "aided and abetted" Perry in killing three people at a Wheaton house on March 3, 1993. The case represents an unusual test of the First Amendment.
"We're not saying the book should be banned. We're saying that Paladin should be held responsible for what they published," said John Marshall, who with Siegel is representing the families of those who where slain.
Paladin, which publishes more than 600 books and videos, has asked a judge to dismiss the case and is standing firm on what it says is its right to publish with impunity.
A U.S. District Court judge will hear arguments July 22.
"If book banners succeed in suppressing books such as 'Hit Man' -- whether by outright government censorship or, as in this case, by the threat of a crushing lawsuit -- the criminals will still be out there and so will the information," reads a defense in a recent Paladin catalog of its offerings. "Knowledge cannot be erased or kept from curious minds."
According to Montgomery County prosecutors who presented the case against Perry earlier this year, the Detroit native followed 27 steps outlined in "Hit Man" when he killed Mildred Horn, her 8-year-old quadriplegic son, Trevor, and the boy's nurse, Janice Saunders.
Among the steps he followed were the book's instructions to file down the gun barrel to make the murder weapon untraceable, to use a silencer and to shoot two of the victims in the eyes "to ensure quick and sure death," the lawsuit contends.
Police investigators said Perry followed the book nearly to the letter, except on one point that led to his arrest: He used his name just before the murders when checking into a Gaithersburg motel. He also used his name when he obtained a rental car in Detroit for the trip to Maryland.
"Other than that, he very nearly committed a perfect crime," Marshall said. "This book gave him very good advice on how to be a hit man."
Perry, who has been sentenced to death, was hired by former Motown Records sound engineer Lawrence T. Horn, 56. Horn, who was Trevor's father, had sought to inherit the boy's $1.7 million trust fund set up with a medical malpractice lawsuit settlement.
He was sentenced May 16 to life in prison without possibility of parole, ending the criminal phase of the case.
But in the civil arena, the killings still pose puzzling questions about Paladin's possible role in the crime.
Perry bought the "Hit Man" manual the year before the killings, along with another Paladin book titled "How to Make a Disposable Silencer, Vol. 2." He paid for the books with a $30 check that bounced, according to court papers.
Peder C. Lund, the president of Paladin Enterprises Inc., couldn't be reached for this article. But in an April 19 court affidavit, he hinted that books such as "Hit Man" aren't meant to be taken seriously.
Works such as "Hit Man" -- written by an unknown author under the pen name "Rex Feral" -- are designed "to tease the reader with ambiguity as to whether they are to be taken seriously," Lund said.
The book was not edited for "technical accuracy," he said.
Lund added: "Such works [as Hit Man] tend to dissipate rather than stimulate aggressive tendencies and negative energies on the part of readers. A great many of our customers are Walter Mittys who have never handled explosives or a submachine gun."
Most troubling for Paladin may be a similar wrongful-death case in Alabama, in which the courts found Soldier of Fortune magazine liable for running a "Gun for Hire" advertisement that led to the contract killing in 1985 of an investment businessman.
The family of the businessman, Richard Braun, successfully sued the magazine for $4.3 million after Braun was fatally shot in his driveway by a hit man armed with a silencer-fitted MAC-11 machine pistol.
The magazine appealed the ruling but the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the award; Soldier of Fortune stopped publishing personal ads a year later.
Marshall, one of the attorneys representing a family suing Paladin, said the publisher won't divulge the real name of the author who wrote "Hit Man."
"From what we've been told, the book has been selling like hot cakes" since word got out about the Perry case, Marshall said.
The "Hit Man" author says in one passage that "the professional hit man fills a need in society and is, at times, the only alternative for personal justice. If my advice and the proven methods in this book are followed, certainly no one will ever know."
Paladin's lawyers have cited some examples of publishers that have come under fire for printing articles or books that might induce crime, but they weren't found liable.
One such case involved High Times magazine, which in 1980 described the best vehicles with which to smuggle illegal drugs.
Paladin also maintains that books such as Stephen King's "Rage" -- describing a disaffected adolescent taking his high school class hostage and shooting his teacher -- could become the targets of book banning because some call it "a blueprint" for at least nine incidents of hostage-taking.
"The mere fact that one of the 13,000 persons who purchased 'Hit Man' employed some of the techniques it describes [does not establish] the likelihood of imminent unlawful conduct," said Thomas B. Kelley, a Denver attorney representing Paladin. The RTC company files disclaimers on many of its book descriptions in its catalog, describing books "For Academic Study Only" or "For Information Purposes Only."
Marshall said the "Hit Man" issue boils down to intent.
"There are always stories about a Stephen King novel or some other book being used for something it wasn't intended to do," Marshall said.
"But this book's intent is to show someone how to kill another person and get away with it. Intent is everything in criminal law."
A sampling of the books for sale in the 1996 Paladin Press catalog:
1. "Homemade grenade launchers: Constructing the ultimate hobby weapon"
2. "Swiss money secrets: How you can legally hide your money in Switzerland"
3. "Scram: Relocating under a new identity"
4. "Birth certificate fraud"
5. "Whispering death: Secrets of improvised and state-of-the-art silencers"
6. "Put 'em down, take 'em out: Knife-fighting techniques from Folsom prison"
7. "Be your own undertaker: How to dispose of a dead body"
8. "Da Zhimingde: Striking deadly blows to vital organs"
9. "Expedient B&E;: Tactics for bypassing alarms and defeating locks"
10. "Guerrilla's arsenal: Advanced techniques for making explosives and time-delay bombs"
Pub Date: 6/29/96