SAN FRANCISCO Citing free-speech concerns, the state Supreme Court yesterday unanimously struck down a law that barred felons from profiting from the sale of their crime stories.
The 1983 statute, nicknamed the "Son of Sam" law, required that convicted criminals give all money earned from book, movie or other deals to their victims or the state.
The nation's first such law was passed in New York after "Son of Sam" serial killer David Berkowitz was offered big money for his story. The U.S. Supreme Court struck down that law in 1991.
Yesterday's ruling in Keenan v. Superior Court came in a case involving the kidnapping of Frank Sinatra Jr., who was abducted from Harrah's Casino at Lake Tahoe in 1963.
The law was challenged by Barry Keenan, the leader of three kidnappers who abducted the 19-year-old son of musician Frank Sinatra. He was released unharmed after the Sinatra family paid a $240,000 ransom.
After a magazine interview with Keenan was published in 1998, he and the writer sold the movie rights to Columbia Pictures, which is developing "Snatching Sinatra." The younger Sinatra, however, won a court order preventing the $485,000 payment to Keenan.
California's justices overturned that order yesterday.
"This is a very important day for freedom of expression," said Keenan, who said he planned all along to donate his earnings to charity or to Sinatra.
Sinatra's attorney, Richard Specter, said the ruling "doesn't bode well for victims' rights statutes." He added that "it will be interesting to see if he will follow through on what he claims he is going to do with the money."
Keenan, who blamed his actions on drugs and alcohol, spent less than five years in prison and is now a land developer in Texas.
In its ruling, the court expressed First Amendment objections and said the law could threaten "numerous works."
The court noted that the law, if it was on the books in other areas or at other times, would have "applied to numerous works by authors whose discussions of larger subjects make substantial, and often vividly descriptive, contextual references to prior felonies of which they were convicted."
One book, the court points out, is The Autobiography of Malcolm X, in which the murdered civil rights leader describes early burglaries for which he was convicted. Another is Eldridge Cleaver's 1968 Soul on Ice, in which he discusses his rapes of white women, for which he was convicted, saying they were committed out of racial rage.
The court added it might be receptive to a Son of Sam law that does not forfeit "all of a convicted felon's proceeds from expressive materials."
The court also pointed out that California grants crime victims other legal avenues to receive compensation from defendants. The justices said victims may sue defendants for compensation, which is what happened after O.J. Simpson's criminal trial.
In 1997, a civil court jury that was charged with deciding whether Simpson should be held liable for the slayings of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman found Simpson liable, and ordered him to pay $33.5 million in damages.
An estimated 40 states have Son of Sam laws. New York's was the only one to reach the U.S. Supreme Court, and California's was the only one to go before the state's highest court.