Natural Born Killers
Plodding Through the Courts
But, in the end, the question over culpability would be settled in and by the courts. Columnists and panelists could pontificate as much as they wanted from either side of the political spectrum, their views likely had little to do with the case's final outcome.
On January 23, 1997, the 21st Judicial District Court ruled in favor of Stone and the other defendants. The court found that "the law simply does not recognize a cause of action such as that in Byers' petition." An immediate appeal was filed by Byers and her attorneys.
The suit continued despite Byers's death later that year and, on May 15, 1998, the Louisiana First Circuit Court of Appeal tossed out the lower court's ruling. They ruled that Natural Born Killers fell within the "incitement" exception to the First Amendment's guarantee of free speech; that is, it advocated "the use of imminent force or unlawful action." The appeals judges determined that Stone's intent was to incite people to commit violent crimes, and was therefore not eligible for First Amendment protection. The case was allowed to proceed to trial.
Stone's attorneys petitioned the Louisiana Supreme Court to hear the case, claiming that, "No court in America has ever held a filmmaker or film distributor liable for injuries allegedly resulting from the imitation of a film." Their argument went on to say, "The specter of such boundless liability would cause those who create movies, music, books, and other creative works to avoid controversial or provocative subjects."
However, the State Supreme Court was unswayed by their arguments. In October of that year the seven justices voted unanimously to decline review the Court of Appeals' decision, thus allowing it to stand. Stone and his attorneys then took their case to the U.S. Supreme Court where, on March 8, 1999, the High Court also declined to intervene. This also meant that the circuit court's decision would stand. This was considered a victory by the Byers family but the issue would be far from settled.
Four months later, Stone agreed to give a deposition on his side in the case, including his motives for making the movie. His attorneys said he would come to Louisiana to file the deposition by the end of the year. Plaintiff attorney Joe Simpson said, among other things, he wanted to see materials related to how Stone and Time Warner were promoting the movie. "We have to show that he intended to provoke violence," Simpson told reporters.
Lawyers for the plaintiffs cited a recent precedent handed down by the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in 1997. In the case of Rice v. Paladin, the court ruled that a book publishing company, in this case Paladin, could be held liable for the actions of readers of a book that was essentially a manual for contract killers. The book, Hit Man: A Technical Manual for Independent Contractors, was linked to a murder-for-hire, despite the publisher's contention that the book also provided a valuable educational service for law enforcement personnel and writers of mysteries and true crime books.
However, Rodney Smolla, a law professor representing the Rice family in the Hit Man case, cautioned the Byers family attorneys that the two cases were very different. He said movies like Natural Born Killers are intended "to entertain people and a murder manual is meant to train people."