Court Revisits 'Son of Sam' Law

ByGeraldine Sealey

July 18, 2000 -- 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: He’s 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 York’s statute as overbroad in 1991, forcing several states, including New York and California, to rewrite their laws.

Snatching Sinatra Sells

At 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 victim’s 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 California’s “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 criminal’s 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 Keenan’s 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.

Wiseguy Hits the High Court

New York passed the first “Son of Sam” law in the wake of serial killings that terrorized New York City in the summer of 1977. The statute was intended to prevent David Berkowitz from profiting by selling the media rights to his story. But the case that took the Son of Sam law to the Supreme Court stemmed from Wiseguy, a book about the life of organized crime figure Henry Hill. After New York State ordered Simon and Schuster to suspend all payments to Hill, the publishing company claimed the statute violated the First Amendment. “Publishers felt their rights to stories would be chilled, with books, you have to pay for memoirs no matter how onerous the author may be,” says Fordham University First Amendment expert Mark Conrad. The court agreed in its 1991 decision, declaring the New York law unconstitutional because it was “overinclusive”: the law applied to works that even tangentially expressed the author’s thoughts about a crime and applied even to those who had not been convicted or accused.

Court Expected to Rule Within Months

California’s statute is much more narrowly tailored: It only applies to convicted felons, not including those found guilty by reason of insanity, and the stories of the felonies for which they were convicted. In May of 1999, the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals rejected Keenan’s claim and upheld the state’s “Son of Sam” law. The state Supreme Court is expected to rule on the appeal in several months. Meanwhile, activists elsewhere are working to expand and strengthen “notoriety for profit” laws. The governor of South Carolina recently signed into law a measure that outlaws profiting from crime in any fashion. In New York, legislators are considering broadening the state’s law that would allow victims to recover money and property that a convicted criminal receives from any source and to apply to misdemeanor convictions and felonies. But some First Amendment experts argue that many such “second-generation” Son of Sam laws will not withstand the scrutiny of the high court, if they ever make it that far. “It’s a strong First Amendment court,” Conrad said. “They will look at these laws skeptically.”

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events