CARSON CITY, Nev. Donna Seres thought it was bad enough that Jimmy Lerner killed her brother at a Reno hotel-casino in 1997.
Then, she became outraged after Lerner wrote a best-selling book about the crime based on notes smuggled out of a Nevada prison.
Now, Seres is taking her lawsuit seeking Lerner’s book profits to the Nevada Supreme Court in a case that will test the constitutionality of a state law designed to stop convicts from profiting from their crimes.
She’s appealing a judge’s ruling that the law is unconstitutional. The Supreme Court gave no indication when it would rule after holding oral arguments last week.
“The First Amendment takes priority over everything,” Lerner’s lawyer, Scott Freeman, told the Reno Gazette-Journal. “It’s a freedom-of-speech type of statute that creates a financial disincentive for someone to write a book. That’s a chilling of free speech.”
But Washoe County District Attorney Richard Gammick disagrees.
“Why should a person who commits a crime be allowed to profit from that crime?” Gammick asked. “I think the victim’s family should get every dime.
“I’m not sure what the First Amendment issue is here. Nobody says he can’t write the book. He just shouldn’t profit from it,” Gammick added.
Lerner, 52, who now lives in Florida, declined comment on the advice of his lawyer.
He was paroled in January 2002 after serving three years of a two- to 12-year sentence for his guilty plea to voluntary manslaughter. He was originally charged with murder.
Lerner, a former marketing executive and planner for Pacific Bell from Danville, Calif., drove with Mark Slavin to Reno in November 1997 for a gambling vacation.
He later admitted using a belt and plastic bag to suffocate Slavin and apologized for the crime.
Lerner’s book, You Got Nothing Coming: Notes From a Prison Fish which is about life behind bars and the slaying that got him there won favorable reviews from critics.
Publisher’s Weekly Review called it “the most gripping and most inviting prison memoir in years,” while a reviewer for The New York Times Magazine praised his writing style.
“Lerner did not play for sympathy or condemn the penal system; he simply recounted his experience with deadpan, self-deprecating wit,” the reviewer wrote.
Freeman won’t say how much his client has made from the book.
Gammick has challenged the book’s accuracy, saying Lerner’s self-defense claim is not supported by evidence in court records.
Seres’ lawyer, Ian Silverberg, could not be reached for comment.
But in a court brief, he said the state law was designed “to serve an admitted and undisputed compelling State interest of compensating victims of crimes.”
In 2002, Lerner asked the district court to dismiss the lawsuit, claiming the law violates the First Amendment and Nevada Constitution.
Washoe District Judge Brent Adams last year ruled in Lerner’s favor, saying the law “is an impermissible content-based restriction on speech.”