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Son of Sam law

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Title: Son of Sam law  
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Subject: Crime in the United States, American prison literature, Kevin Mitnick, Ex post facto law, First Amendment to the United States Constitution
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Son of Sam law

A Son of Sam law is any American law designed to keep criminals from profiting from the publicity of their crimes, often by selling their stories to publishers. However, this is not in the same manner of asset forfeiture, which is intended to seize assets acquired directly as a result of criminal activity. Where asset forfeiture looks to remove the profitability of crimes by taking away money and assets gained from the crime, Son of Sam laws are designed so that criminals are unable to take advantage of the notoriety of their crimes. Such laws often authorize the state to seize money earned from deals such as book/movie biographies and paid interviews and use it to compensate the criminal's victims. The term "Son of Sam" refers to the nickname of serial killer David Berkowitz, the subject of a notorious 1978 murder case.

In certain cases a Son of Sam law can be extended beyond the criminals themselves to include friends, neighbors, and family members of the lawbreaker who seek to profit by telling publishers and filmmakers of their relation to the criminal. In other cases, a person may not financially benefit from the sale of a story or any other mementos pertaining to the crime—if the criminal was convicted after the date lawmakers passed the law in the states where the crime was committed.


The first such law was created in New York after the Son of Sam murders committed by serial killer David Berkowitz. It was enacted after rampant speculation about publishers offering large amounts of money for Berkowitz's story. The law was invoked in New York 11 times between 1977 and 1990, including once against Mark David Chapman, the murderer of musician John Lennon.

Critics disputed the law in the Supreme Court on First Amendment grounds. It was argued that "Son of Sam" laws take away the financial incentive for many criminals to tell their stories, some of which (such as the Watergate scandal and the assassination of John F. Kennedy) were of vital interest to the general public.

Though this original New York law was struck down, the Supreme Court ruling actually stated that Son of Sam laws could conceivably be constitutional, but only if written very carefully, with regard to First Amendment rights. Various states (including New York) now have laws to prevent felons from capitalizing on their crimes written with an eye towards adhering to the ruling laid out by the Supreme Court concerning the First Amendment.

Another discussion of the Son of Sam law came over the case of Amy Fisher, which garnered much publicity. Producers offered the Fisher family $80,000 for the rights to publicize the case, although that money was used to post bail rather than for personal gain and enjoyment.

After numerous revisions, New York adopted a law in 2001, again known as the "Son of Sam" law.[1] This law requires that victims of crimes be notified whenever a person convicted of a crime receives $10,000 (US) or more—from virtually any source.[2] The law then attaches a springing statute of limitations, giving victims an extended period of time to sue the perpetrator of the crime in civil court for their crimes.[3] This law also authorizes a state agency, the Crime Victims' Board, to act on the victims' behalf in some limited circumstances.[4] Thus far, the current New York law has survived constitutional scrutiny.


In 1987, lawyers for publishing giant Simon & Schuster sued the New York authorities to prevent enforcement of the Son of Sam law with respect to a book they were about to publish called Wiseguy, written by Nicholas Pileggi. The book was about ex-mobster Henry Hill and was used as the basis for the film Goodfellas. The case reached the Supreme Court in 1991. In an 8–0 ruling on Simon & Schuster v. Crime Victims Board, the court ruled the law unconstitutional.[5] The majority opinion was that the law was overinclusive, and would have prevented the publication of such works as The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Thoreau's Civil Disobedience, and even The Confessions of Saint Augustine.

In a Texas lawsuit in 1998 a civil jury awarded $1.001 billion to the siblings of Holly Maddux, invoking the Son of Sam law. The Maddux family is not expected to receive the money, rather the lawsuit was based on the rumor that Holly Maddux's murderer Ira Einhorn was expected to sign a book deal with a European publisher. The siblings had refused to allow Einhorn to make money over the tragedy, and their lawyer had argued in court "we seek to seize any earnings of Ira Einhorn or his wife. If he can spend it, we want it." The state of California's Son of Sam law was struck down in 2002 after being used against Barry Keenan, one of the men who kidnapped Frank Sinatra, Jr. in 1963.

In high-profile cases and cases that are closely tied to national security, namely convictions for terrorism and espionage, a Son of Sam clause is often worked into any plea bargain. This had been the case in the convictions of John Walker Lindh and Harold James Nicholson. As a result of their plea bargains, any and all profits made from book deals or movie rights would be handed over to the U.S. Treasury. Neither the convicts nor their families would be able to profit. As of 2010, neither Lindh nor Nicholson have had their crime cases publicized.

With the advent of the Internet and online sales, many Son of Sam laws are now targeting the sale of so-called "murderabilia". The constitutionality of many of these new laws is mostly untested at this point.


  1. ^ N.Y. Executive Law § 632-a (McKinney 2005).
  2. ^ N.Y. Corrections Law § 500-c (McKinney 2006).
  3. ^ See N.Y. C.P.L.R.
  4. ^ N.Y. Executive Law § 632-a(2) (McKinney 2005).
  5. ^ 502 U.S. 105 (1991)).

External links

  • Crime Doesn't Pay - or Does It?: Simon & Schuster,Inc. v. Fischetti
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