WASHINGTON — A Colorado publisher of military-style manuals has agreed to pay a multimillion-dollar settlement to end a lawsuit over a triple murder committed by one of his readers, lawyers in the case said Friday.
The precedent-setting suit in the so-called "Hit Man" case had been scheduled to go before a Maryland jury Monday.
Lawyers said the case marks the first time in American history that a book publisher had been held financially liable for a crime committed by a reader.
Last year, the Supreme Court rejected the publisher's claim that the 1st Amendment shielded him from liability.
"I think this marks an important step in combating this country's culture of violence," said University of Richmond law professor Rodney Smolla, a 1st Amendment expert who represented the family in its suit against the publisher.
"It's a landmark because it draws a line in the law that had not been drawn before. It demonstrates that if you disseminate information with the intent to assist criminals, you can be held legally accountable," Smolla said.
Paladin Press of Boulder, Colo., a mail-order publishing house, had sold at least 13,000 copies of "Hit Man: A Technical Manual for Independent Contractors." In the forward, it is candidly described as an "instruction book on murder."
Step by step, it tells a would-be contract killer how to sneak into homes at night, how to use a silencer and how to kill most effectively.
Faced with the lawsuit, publisher Peder Lund said the book was intended for fantasy and entertainment.
In 1993, however, the manual figured in a brutal crime in suburban Silver Spring, Md.
Mildred Horn, a flight attendant, was found shot between the eyes in her living room. Nearby were the bodies of her disabled son and a housekeeper.
Police traced the crimes to Lawrence Horn, her ex-husband, a sound engineer living in Hollywood, and James Perry of Detroit, a contract killer he had hired. When police searched Perry's home, they found a copy of "Hit Man," and prosecutors showed that he had followed its instructions.
After Horn and Perry were convicted of the murders, the family's lawyer filed a civil suit against Paladin, charging the publisher with aiding and abetting the murders.
Howard Siegel, the Rockville, Md., lawyer who filed the suit, said that in addition to the money settlement paid to Mildred Horn's survivors, Paladin also agreed to remove "Hit Man" from the market and to donate funds to two charities chosen by the families.
"Our cherished freedom--freedom of speech--does not include the freedom to assist murderers," Siegel said.
To maintain their privacy, the survivors did not want the amount of the settlement disclosed, he said. They have a powerful reason for preferring privacy. Siegel earlier had won a large malpractice settlement for Mildred Horn after her son suffered severe brain damage as a baby. That trust fund may have led to the murders.
Lawrence Horn apparently believed that he would inherit the estimated $2 million trust fund if his wife and son were dead, prosecutors said at the trial.
Officials at Paladin Press declined to comment Friday but their lawyers, who were preparing for the trial, confirmed the settlement.
Lee Levine, a Washington lawyer and 1st Amendment specialist, said that the publisher's insurance carriers probably were wary of going to trial because of public concern and anger over violence in the media, particularly after the shootings last month at Colorado's Columbine High School, where two students killed 12 classmates and a teacher before turning their guns on themselves.
"In the wake of the Columbine shootings, we had asked the judge for a continuance [to delay the trial] but it was denied," Levine said.
Lawyers following the case differ somewhat on its significance as a legal precedent.
Siegel and Smolla described the case against Paladin as unique because the publisher conceded in the lawsuit that his book was designed to assist contract murderers.
Unlike murder mysteries or violent films, "Hit Man" was not primarily a piece of entertainment.
Courts generally have refused to hold filmmakers or publishers liable for so-called copycat crimes. In these unsuccessful lawsuits, lawyers have claimed that a criminal acted out what he had seen on screen or read in a book.
The appeals court judges who upheld the suit against Paladin also stressed that "Hit Man" is a guidebook. It "had no legitimate purpose beyond the promotion and teaching of murder," wrote Judge J. Michael Luttig in a 1997 ruling.
Nonetheless, Levine as well as some film industry lawyers said that they fear the "Hit Man" precedent could be applied broadly.
Last year, a Louisiana appeals court cited the case as a basis for refusing to block a lawsuit seeking to hold filmmaker Oliver Stone liable for a young couple's murderous rampage in Mississippi and Louisiana.
The suit was filed on behalf of a convenience store clerk who was shot and later died.
The killer and her accomplice said that they had patterned themselves after the murdering couple portrayed in Stone's 1994 film "Natural Born Killers." On March 9, the Supreme Court refused to intervene and allowed the lawsuit to proceed.