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El salario del pecado: lucrarse en la cárcel

Por John Riley, antiguo colaborador de la revista Crime, Justice and America. Publicado originalmente en 2003 y reproducido con permiso de la revista Crime, Justice and America.

“Son of Sam” laws are meant to prevent criminals from profiting from their crimes. The law gets its name from the pseudonym of David Berkowitz, the infamous Son of Sam serial killer who terrorized New York City in the summer of 1977

Theoretically, a terrorist in California could blow up the Golden Gate Bridge, be arrested and convicted of the crime, sign a multi-million-dollar book deal and donate the money to other terrorists to blow up other landmarks.

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At least that’s the gist of Frank Sinatra Jr.’s interpretation of the California Supreme Court ruling that gunned down the so-called “Son of Sam Law” in February. “Think of it this way,” Sinatra said during an interview with the Las Vegas Sun newspaper. “Here I am, a criminal. I’ll carjack your car. If I don’t get caught, I’ve gotten away with that car. I can keep it, sell it, strip it down and sell the parts. I’ve made money on it.

“If I do get caught, I can be put in prison, get out, sell the story to newspapers, magazines, TV, or movies and I’ve made money anyway.”

After Berkowitz was arrested, the state of New York passed the nation’s first “Son of Sam” law to prevent Berkowitz from profiting from book sales that recounted his string of grisly murders.

According to a 1999 study by the National Center for Victims of Crime, 42 states and the federal government followed New York’s lead and enacted similar “Son of Sam” laws. The study found that laws across the country share the same intent, but the wording varies slightly from state to state.

In most states, the victim must sue the offender in civil court and obtain a judgment for damages before being eligible to make a claim against the offender’s profits. In others, claims are made through an established state victim compensation program.

The laws generally apply to convicted offenders, including those who plead guilty, as well as those who are acquitted on the grounds of insanity. A few states include people accused of a crime, provided there has been an indictment or some other preliminary determination that the defendant may have committed the crime. Ordinarily, states require that the profits be paid to the state, and be held in escrow.

Victims’ Rights In California

California’s “Victims Rights Law” was passed in 1986. However, after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the New York law in 1991 on the grounds it was too broad, California reworded its law to apply only to convicted felons.

The constitutionality of the new version went untested until 1998, when Barry Keenan tried to sell a story to Columbia Pictures about the 1963 kidnapping of the then 19-year-old son of Frank Sinatra.

Keenan was one of three men who abducted Sinatra Jr. from a hotel-casino at Lake Tahoe. After his father paid a $240,000 ransom, the men were arrested and convicted of kidnapping. Keenan, 61, spent four years in prison, and after being released became a real estate broker. He is now retired.

When it seemed that Keenan was about to strike a deal with Columbia, Sinatra Jr. sued.

First Amendment Rights?

Justice Marvin Baxter, who wrote the decision for the court, said the ban on profits in the California law was too broad because it could apply to anything that dealt with the criminal’s memory of the crimes. He said the law discourages open discussion of crimes.

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The American Civil Liberties Union agrees with Judge Baxter. They filed a brief in the Keenan case, arguing in favor of overturning the California law on the grounds that it violated the First Amendment guarantee of freedom of speech.

Sinatra says no one is a stronger advocate fro the First Amendment than him.

“I used to hate the National Inquirer, The Star and all those parasites,” he said. “Then one night, about 10 years ago, I was bored and I started watching a stupid local station in L.A.” The program was a three-hour show featuring reverends Jimmy Swaggart and Jerry Falwell “ranting and raving” about the movie The Last Temptation of Christ.

Sinatra said he watched Swaggart and Falwell spend three hours telling viewers not to go to the movie, not to watch any other movies or television programs produced by the makers of the movie; not to buy products made by companies that buy sponsorship time on television shows made by the studio. He said the two men had appointed themselves censors and it disturbed him.

“I would rather have a thousand National Inquirers than one guy who can get up like that for three hours and say, `I speak for God,’ and so don’t look at this, don’t read that, don’t listen to this. There is your censorship. There’s your First Amendment violation.”

Preventing Keenan from making a profit from his crime does not violate freedom of speech, according to Sinatra.

Or Victims’ Rights?

But victims, and families of victims have another point of view. Marc Klass, father of Polly Klass, who was 12 when she was kidnapped and murdered in 1993, complained in the media following the Keenan decision. He claims the ruling sends a message to criminals that it’s OK to profit from their crimes.

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Sinatra claims there is another point, enforcing the rights of the victims to resume their lives after a crime. “For a time [publicity] about the event went away,” Sinatra said. “Then in 1998, when I was 54 years old, I did something that I had never done before: I sued somebody for the first time in my life, and we’ve been in litigation ever since.

“After 40 years, [the kidnapping case] has reared its ugly head again.”

Sinatra, who occasionally performs at concerts and appears in film and on television, said victims of crimes now may be victimized twice – once when the crime is committed, and another time when the have to relive it in the media. He said he will appeal the California decision all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

“I feel bad [about the decision], not so much for me, but the fact of the matter is, any man, woman or child who is the victim of a crime is the potential victim of the crime twice.” Sinatra said state courts have the right to take away a criminal’s freedom, even his life, but apparently it can’t take away his money – or his right to drag victims and their families through the media.

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