Court to rule on laws letting states seize proceeds of criminals' stories

February 20, 1991|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- Taking up an issue of keen interest to victims' rights activists, the Supreme Court agreed yesterday to rule on the constitutionality of states' seizure of the money that a criminal would make by selling a story of crime to a book publisher or movie studio.

Thirty-four states and the federal government now have such laws, and the first and broadest of those laws -- New York's -- is at issue in the new appeal involving the mobster's story providing the plot for the book "Wiseguy" and the popular movie "GoodFellas."

Maryland is not one of the 34 states with such laws, but Delaware and Pennsylvania have them.

New York's law, and others like it, are called "Son of Sam laws" because New York passed its law in 1977 when the legislature feared that serial killer David R. Berkowitz would sell his story about the series of nighttime killings.

Berkowitz called himself "Son of Sam" and said the killings were inspired by demons a dog had put into him.

Under the New York law, the state seizes and holds for five years -- for possible payment to crime victims -- the money that an individual makes by selling a tale of real crime for use as a book, movie, magazine article, radio or TV program, phonograph record or "live entertainment."

The money is put into a fund, and victims of that individual's crimes may sue to get a share of it as compensation for the harm done them. If no one claims the money after five years, the criminal can collect it.

The test case that the Supreme Court will review involves the story of Henry Hill, a career criminal who was a "foot soldier" in the Mafia. He sold his story to the book publisher Simon & Schuster, leading to a popular book, "Wiseguy," by journalist Nicholas Pileggi. Later, the plot also was the basis for the Hollywood movie "GoodFellas."

The idea behind the book was to show how uninteresting life could be for a low-level figure in a Mafia family.

In May 1987, New York state officials ordered Simon & Schuster to hand over $96,250 it had set aside to pay Hill for his cooperation in telling his story to Mr. Pileggi.

Among the tales were the celebrated theft of almost $6 million in cash and jewelry from the Lufthansa Airline terminal at John F. Kennedy Airport and the bribery of Boston College basketball players.

The publisher challenged the constitutionality of the "Son of Sam" law, but the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New York City upheld it last October. The Circuit Court said that the law serves the purpose of "barring criminals from profiting at the expense of victims who are in need of compensation."

Taking the case on to the Supreme Court (Simon & Schuster vs. New York State Crime Victims Board, No. 90-1059), the publisher contended that the law is an unconstitutional form of penalty for one kind of free speech and thus seeks to censor that kind of expression.

In another action yesterday, the court released the first opinion to be written by Justice David H. Souter since he joined the bench last fall. In a unanimous decision, the court threw out -- for procedural reasons -- the death sentence given to a Georgian for killing a manager of a gas station during a 1984 robbery in Newnan, Ga.

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