COMMENTARY | COLUMNISTS | THOMAS ELIAS
Southern California Focus

'Son of Sam' ruling hits crime victims' kin

Until the last two weeks, Cary Stayner had been off the nation's television screens for more than two years. Accused of murdering three tourists in Yosemite National Park in 1999 and already convicted of slaying a park guide, Stayner quietly awaited his state trial in San Jose.

But now California's highest court has made it much more likely that he'll once again become a major presence in movies or TV. So could many more convicted killers or rapists.

That's the meaning of a recent decision from the state Supreme Court, which struck down California's 1983 "Son of Sam" law, the measure aimed at preventing criminals or their relatives from enriching themselves at the expense of their victims.

The unanimous justices said they could not uphold the law because it might discourage free speech.

And why would a law that required felons to turn over any book, movie or television proceeds to their victims or the victims' heirs discourage free speech? Essentially because if they can't get rich off their sordid stories, most convicts don't want to talk at all.

So brace yourself for a TV movie on Cary Stayner, the former motel handyman who confessed to the murders of Eureka resident Carole Sund, her 15-year-old daughter Juliana and foreign exchange student Silvina Pelosso, and spurred huge headlines for more than a year.

No sooner had Stayner, then 36, given the FBI his now-disputed confession than TV producers appeared on his jailhouse doorstep eager to buy the rights to his life story.

But the Son of Sam law stymied them, as it gave Stayner no motivation to make a movie deal.

That, of course, was one purpose of the law, whose authors intended it not only to see that crime did not become hugely profitable, but also to help prevent criminals from rubbing victims' noses in their misfortune.

California legislators patterned the law in part on a New York statute passed after killer David Berkowitz reaped millions from his murderous tale.

This state revised its law when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the New York statute in a case brought by admitted mob figure Henry Hill, whose story eventually became the movie "Goodfellas." Some provisions the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled overly broad in the Hill case were eliminated.

Now the California court says even those changes can't save this state's version of the law. The justices upheld a challenge by Barry Keenan, the leader of three kidnappers who in 1963 abducted Frank Sinatra Jr., then 19, the son of the late singer. Keenan served five years of a shortened life sentence, then in 1998 sold his story for $485,000 to Columbia Pictures, which planned a feature film titled "Snatching Sinatra."

Now a land developer in Texas, Keenan will likely get his money, which had been held up after Sinatra invoked the Son of Sam law. Whether or not Keenan donates the money to charity, as he claims he will, his case has opened a potential Pandora's Box.

For now there's nothing to hold back producers and publishers seeking to profit by lionizing society's worst villains.

The state court tried to soften its decision by noting that victims and their families can still sue predators in civil courts.

That is, in fact, now the only recourse left to the Sunds, Pelossos and other relatives of crime victims. Like the father of alleged O.J. Simpson murder victim Ronald Goldman, they can still file suits aiming to confiscate the assets of criminals or those they believe fit that label. But lawsuits are an iffy avenue, as demonstrated by Simpson's current life of luxury.

Which means that California's high court has decreed that criminals' right to free speech trumps their victims' right to live and recover in peace. And that there's no limit on exploitation of the most heinous crimes.

Elias is author of the book "The Burzynski Breakthrough: The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government's Campaign to Squelch It," now available in an updated second edition. His e-mail address is thomas.elias@sddt.com.

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