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California high court mulls 'Son of Sam' law

By The Associated Press

12.07.01

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LOS ANGELES — A man who took part in the kidnapping of Frank Sinatra Jr. 28 years ago has asked the state Supreme Court to reconsider a law that bars felons from profiting by telling the stories of their crimes.

Barry Keenan's lawyer argued yesterday that the state's "Son of Sam" law violates the constitutional right to free speech, which should apply to everyone — including felons.

The seven justices listened to an hour's worth of arguments and seemed concerned about whether the law was too broad and vague to pass constitutional muster since New York's "Son of Sam" law was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1991.

"It seems overbroad," Justice Joyce L. Kennard said.

"We need to have books written by people who've been involved in crimes in order to learn about crime, learn about punishment," attorney Stephen Rohde said outside court.

The Son of Sam law bars felons from profiting by selling tales of their crimes for movies, books or other uses. Any payments must go to victims.

Keenan spent 4 years in prison for kidnapping Frank Sinatra Jr., who was taken at gunpoint by three men from a Lake Tahoe, Nev., motel room.

Sinatra Jr., then 19, was freed after his family paid $240,000. Keenan, a high school pal of Sinatra Jr.'s sister, Nancy, later was arrested with two other men and convicted of conspiracy, kidnapping and other charges.

Keenan was sentenced to life plus 75 years in prison. After being declared legally insane at the time of the crime, his sentence was reduced and he was paroled in 1968.

He agreed to sell the rights to his story to Columbia Pictures for $485,000. But in 1998, Sinatra Jr. filed suit to prevent Keenan from getting the money. Court challenges have held up the payment, although Keenan said the movie, "Snatching Sinatra," remains in development.

Keenan, who blamed drugs and alcohol for his actions, is now a Texas developer. He is active in groups that support rehabilitation for criminals.

He said he owes more than $200,000 in legal fees, and publicity over the issue has cost him $12 million to $18 million in development projects.

"I'm broke," he said outside court. "Until this thing is resolved, my investors are staying away."

Under questioning, Rohde said he believed that Patricia Hearst's memoirs and books such as Born Again by Watergate conspirator Charles Colson and Blind Ambition by John Dean might be covered by the law.

Sinatra Jr.'s lawyer, Richard Specter, argued that the law was narrowly written because it allows "passing reference" to crimes in a felon's book. The compensation prohibition refers only to "re-enactment, portrayal or depiction" of the crime, he said.

Specter also argued the law serves a "compelling state interest" to compensate crime victims. Forty-one states and the U.S. government have similar laws, so a decision in California could become a "road map," he said.

If the law is ruled unconstitutional, "it [would be] a death knell for victims' rights statutes," Specter said.

Keenan said outside court that he had offered to give the money made from the movie to Sinatra Jr. but the offer was refused, and that he has promised in writing to give the money to charities.

Books, articles and TV programs about the kidnapping have been "seriously flawed with errors," he said.

California's law is named for the "Son of Sam" murder case in New York. Reports that serial killer David Berkowitz was being offered big money for his story led the New York Legislature to limit book and movie profits for criminals. However, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the 1977 law in 1991 in Simon & Schuster v. New York Crime Victims Board. A revised version was enacted the next year.

California's version was passed in 1986 and amended in 1995.

The case is Keenan v. Superior Court.

Update

California 'Son of Sam' law struck down
State high court says statute barring felons from profiting from their crime stories could threaten many published works.  02.22.02

Previous

California high court to review state's 'Son of Sam' law
Frank Sinatra Jr.'s kidnapper is trying to profit from story he recently sold to a Hollywood studio.  09.02.99

Related

California case could determine future of 'Son of Sam' laws
Analysis While case before state high court, Legislature expands existing law to cover sale of memorabilia dealing with crime.  03.08.01

'Son of Sam' statutes: federal and state summary
Information on legal issues and legislation concerning attempts to prevent criminals from profiting through sale of memoirs and other intellectual property.  03.21.01

Ex-hitman's book proceeds to go to victims
Lawyer says ruling allowing Arizona to seize 'Sammy the Bull' Gravano's royalties violates First Amendment.  11.21.01

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