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California high court to review state's 'Son of Sam' law

The Associated Press

09.02.99

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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 victims.

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 review.

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 law.

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.

Update

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.  12.07.01

Previous

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.  05.28.99

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