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Television Review

1st Amendment Scrutiny in 'Deliberate Intent'

August 05, 2000|HOWARD ROSENBERG | TIMES TELEVISION CRITIC

How broad is the 1st Amendment? Broad enough to protect expression that abets or leads to murder?

That is at the heart of "Deliberate Intent," the kind of taut, smart, provocative, nonfiction legal story you'd expect from high-achieving HBO or Showtime instead of the Fox-owned FX network.

Lisa Mohan and director Andy Wolk based their arresting teleplay on 1st Amendment attorney Rod Smolla's memoir of a civil case he and Howard Siegel collaborated on a few years ago, one growing from a triple homicide committed by a paid killer following step-by-step instructions in the how-to book: "Hit Man: A Technical Manual for Independent Contractors."

Both killer James Perry (Clark Johnson) and Lawrence "J.T." Horn (James McDaniel), the former Motown recording engineer who hired him to murder his ex-wife, their paraplegic son and the boy's nurse, are already in prison for the slayings when "Deliberate Intent" begins.

That grisly element is recalled very effectively by having Perry vocalize portions of the homicide primer ("Check into the motel using a fictitious name . . . close kills are by far preferred than shots fired over a long distance") as he's shown coldly and methodically carrying out those instructions.

The immorality of not only Perry and Horn but also the book is a given when Smolla (Timothy Hutton) is persuaded by Siegel (Ron Rifkin) to join him in representing family members suing the publisher, Paladin Enterprises. Smolla is reluctant, knowing the suit bucks strong legal precedent.

*

At issue in the matter of the book, written by an anonymous woman, is if immorality equals civil liability, the irony being that Smolla was the attorney who earlier defended publisher Larry Flynt against a suit brought by Jerry Falwell over statements about him in Hustler magazine. On the surface, Smolla's positions on the Paladin and Hustler cases appear in conflict.

"Deliberate Intent" is no pro forma-issue movie. It briefly falters only when awkwardly injecting a superfluous legal colleague (Penny Johnson) to serve as Smolla's sounding board.

It's the fascinating legal ambiguities of the civil action, though, that ultimately drive this well-acted, suspensefully directed account of a case that was opposed by a number of large media companies. They insisted it would undermine freedom-of-speech protections, an argument passionately argued in the movie by Paladin's attorney: "This is a book, it's not a gun, it's not a bomb. Therefore it should be protected under the 1st Amendment, no matter what it says."

But is murder too high a price to pay for that protection? Resolving the suit does not necessarily resolve the issue.

* "Deliberate Intent" airs Sunday at 8 p.m. on FX. The network has rated it TV-PG-VD (may be unsuitable for young children with special advisories for violence and suggestive dialogue).

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