California high court to review state's 'Son of Sam' law
The Associated Press
SAN FRANCISCO The state Supreme Court will decide whether criminals in
California who sell the rights to their stories must give the profits to their
The court agreed unanimously yesterday to hear an appeal by a man who was
convicted of taking part in the 1963 kidnapping of Frank Sinatra Jr. and
recently sold his story to a Hollywood studio. Sinatra got an order blocking the
studio from paying the kidnapper, under a state law that the court will now
The law is a version of New York's "Son of Sam" law, named after serial
killer David Berkowitz, who signed his letters "Son of Sam" and claimed his dog
ordered him to commit murder.
It was ruled unconstitutional in 1991 by the U.S. Supreme Court in Simon & Schuster v. New York Crime Victims Board, which said the law violated free speech and was so broad that it would have applied to the Autobiography of Malcolm X and Henry David Thoreau's Civil Disobedience.
A state appeals court, ruling in the Sinatra case, said May 27 that the
California law was narrower than the New York measure and did not violate
convicted criminals' freedom of expression. The court also said felons who
committed their crimes before the law passed in 1986 were covered by the
The California law requires convicted felons who sell their stories for
articles, books, television or films to surrender the proceeds. Victims have
five years to claim the money as compensation for damages they suffered, and
after that the balance goes to the state.
The law was challenged by Barry Keenan, leader of three kidnappers who
abducted the 19-year-old Sinatra from Harrah's Casino at Lake Tahoe in 1963.
Sinatra was released unharmed after a ransom payment.
Keenan, who blamed his actions on drugs and alcohol, spent less than five
years in prison and now is a land developer in Mississippi.
After a magazine interview with Keenan was published last year, he and the
writer sold the movie rights to Columbia pictures. But Sinatra got a court order
preventing the studio from paying Keenan while the suit was pending.
In upholding the law, the 2nd District Court of Appeal contrasted it with the overturned New York law. The New York law applied to anyone whose story included admission of a crime, even if no charges had ever been filed.
The appeals court said the California law, by contrast, applies only to people who have been convicted of a felony, or acquitted by reason of insanity, and only to stories about their crimes, not to any story that makes a "passing mention" of the crime.
But Keenan's lawyer, Stephen Rohde, said in court papers that the law was "a constitutionally impermissible content-based regulation of protected expression." He also said the law failed to define a "passing mention" and left open the possibility that someone who briefly mentioned a youthful crime in an autobiography could not profit from the book.
The case is Keenan v. Superior Court.
California high court mulls 'Son of Sam' law
Barring felons from making money from their stories violates free speech, attorney for Frank Sinatra Jr. kidnapper tells justices.
State appeals court: Sinatra kidnapper can't profit from movie about case
Ruling bars studio from paying Barry Keenan, requires it to set any payments aside for his victim.