Court Revisits 'Son of Sam' Law

ByABC News
July 17, 2000, 5:27 PM

July 18 -- Almost four decades after he was kidnapped at the age of 19, Frank Sinatra Jr. is engaged in another struggle with one of his former captors: Hes in court battling to prevent the felon from cashing in on his story.

The case, now under consideration by the California Supreme Court, is the first major challenge to a Son of Sam law in almost a decade. The legal dispute comes as victims rights advocates are moving to strengthen and extend laws aimed at preventing criminals and others from profiting from crime.

A lot of people are looking at [the Sinatra] case, says Susan Howley of the National Center for Victims of Crime. The reason these laws were drafted is because most of society is repulsed by the idea that a person can profit off their violent crimes at the expense of the victim. About 40 states and the federal government have Son of Sam laws, which seek to preclude criminals from profiting from their notoriety. The Supreme Court struck down New Yorks statute as overbroad in 1991, forcing several states, including New York and California, to rewrite their laws.

Snatching Sinatra SellsAt issue in the Sinatra case is whether Barry Keenan, convicted of kidnapping the entertainer in 1963, has the right to sell his story of the crime. Keenan, who received $240,000 in ransom from his victims famous father, served time in federal prison and has since been released. Keenan told his story in 1998 to a writer for the alternative weekly magazine New Times Los Angeles. The two men then sold the movie rights of the Snatching Sinatra article to Columbia Pictures for a reported $1.5 million. Sinatra sued, demanding Columbia compensate him as dictated by Californias Son of Sam statute. Under the law, all proceeds from the sale of the story of a felony must be placed in an involuntary trust for the benefit of the criminals victims for five years. But Keenan contended that the state law violated his First Amendment rights and should not be applied to his case since he committed his crime more than two decades before the state law took effect. First Amendment advocates, including the American Civil Liberties Union, support Keenans efforts and argue that Son of Sam laws would have kept many books from publication. Others argue that without financial incentive, many criminals would not tell stories critical to historians and criminologists.