“Murder by the Book”
What to do about co-conspirators to murder for hire?
It is unusual for a private attorney to be asked to prosecute a civil murder for hire case, and even more unusual that the case would be against the publishing company for printing a hit man’s “how to” book.
Susan1 came to us after a man named Jones broke into her house in the middle of the night and attacked her and her young son. Jones was a tall, strong ex-Marine. He intended to kill Susan with a handgun, but the gun jammed. He then tried to choke her to death with a sharpened wire. Susan fought him off, and remarkably she and her son escaped the attack with their lives. But they came away from that night with both physical and emotional injuries. When the police arrested Jones soon after, he seemed stone-faced, and as they conducted their investigation, the tale took an even darker turn.
The police discovered a book among Jones’ possessions entitled, Hit Man: A Technical Manual for Independent Contractors. The manual outlined in detail how to prepare for, and execute, a “hit.” As details of the attack and the weeks beforehand started falling into place, they read eerily similar to the assassin’s checklist in the book. From the specific types of weapons to the percentage of the life insurance policy a hit man can expect, the book read like a play-by-play of the attack on Susan.
It came to light that Susan had recently separated from her husband, who had decided that he wanted to get the life insurance on his soon to be ex-wife, while keeping his own hands clean. He hired Jones to plan and execute the murder. They planned to split the life insurance money he would receive. Jones had never done anything like this before, but knew how to get the necessary instructions, as he had bought other books from the same publisher in the past. Fortunately, Jones did not succeed in his murder attempt, Susan survived, and Jones was convicted and sent to prison.
Now was the time to seek justice in the civil courts against the co-conspirator that gave step-by-step instructions to the would-be professional killer. We represented Susan in her case against the publisher of the hit man how-to book. The publisher also printed other books that might appeal to survivalists, mercenary wanna-be’s, and others. Most of those books were within the broad umbrella of First Amendment protections, but not the Hit Man instructions themselves. The original author said she intended the book to be a work of fiction, but the publisher turned it into a how-to instructional manual. The Hit Man manual encouraged individuals to plan and carry out heinous acts, but more importantly, was a recipe book for contract killing, with step-by-step, detailed instructions. As part of the case, we brought to light the shocking similarities between the book’s instructional guide and the attempted murder that took place.
Before proceeding with Susan’s case, it was important to make sure that the book was not a work of fiction, because if it were, it would be guaranteed First Amendment protections, no matter how offensive it might seem. On the other hand, a book that is essentially the instructions of a co-conspirator to a crime is not protected by the Constitution. We consulted with two literature scholars, who both assured us that the work was not a satire, but the real thing. We worked with a recognized First Amendment legal scholar, who came to the conclusion that this was the kind of criminal conspiracy conduct that has never been protected by the Constitution. While Susan’s case was brought in the Ninth Circuit, that was also the conclusion of a previous Fourth Circuit decision about this same book.
The United States District Court agreed our analysis about what the book really was. The case was eventually resolved through a confidential settlement. More importantly, that helped Susan to get this chapter in her life behind her, at least as much as she could.
1Name changed for privacy reasons
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