Tuesday, October 4, 2011


by Andy Kahan
Victim Advocate City of Houston

In the fall of 1999, I was perusing through a New York paper when I came across a small news brief that stated serial killer Arthur Shawcross’ art privileges were rescinded because officials found he had artwork for sale on eBay. I immediately went over to eBay and clunked in a search for 'serial killers' and items came pouring out. Like most rational thinking individuals I was under the false impression that it was illegal to commit some of the most diabolic crimes and then be allowed to profit off them.

I was wrong.

I contacted eBay officials who politely advised me, "We are not the morality police and as long as it is legal, we have an obligation to offer it to our customers and if you don’t like it, feel free to do something about it."

So I did.

Most Americans have heard of Son of Sam Laws that were enacted to prevent convicted criminals from selling their rights for books and movies. What most Americans are not aware of is that in 1991 a little known court, The United States Supreme Court, overturned New York’s law under the guise that it violated free speech rights because it singled out profits from expressive works. The Supremes advised the states to go back and revise their statutes. Most states ignored their suggestions making their statutes ripe for challenges.

Strangely enough serial killer David Berkowitz, for whom the Son of Sam Laws were named after, never made a dime. And in an even more bizarre twist, he has become one of my most trusted allies in my war against murderabilia.

Recent challenges to Son of Sam Laws have all come out in favor of, you guessed it, convicted criminals. Some of you might recall that Frank Sinatra, Jr. was a kidnap victim in the 60’s and his two kidnappers were convicted, served their time and released from prison. Several years ago, Columbia Pictures offered the kidnappers almost half a million dollars for the rights to their story entitled, Snatching Sinatra. Sinatra Jr. sued under California’s statute and the State Supreme Court ruled in favor of Columbia Pictures and the two kidnappers, thus overturning California’s Son of Sam Law.

We all probably remember former school teacher Mary Kay LaTourneau, who in reality is a convicted child molester. You will be happy to know that the Washington State Supreme Court overturned the Judge’s order barring her from selling her story for books and movies.

Some recent cases in the news indicate that the so called Barefoot Bandit and former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick (both convicted felons) are receiving hefty book deals with the intentions of proceeds being used to pay court ordered restitution. I’ll believe it when I see it.

Going back to eBay, you might be pleased to hear after a two year battle they finally relented and sent out a press release stating, “They will no longer allow the sale of 'murderibilia' out of respect for victim’s families." Coincidentally, the press release was released several weeks before a segment on murderabilia was to air on ABC’s 20/20. Timing was merely coincidental according to eBay officials.

Dealers that once plied their trade on eBay now had to set up shop on their own. Currently there are five to six dealers peddling their wares on internet websites. Top selling items range from serial killer artwork, letters, autographs, worn clothing and, yes, even hair and fingernail clippings.

In the ensuing years of the decade old battle to curb this rather despicable insidious industry, I have encouraged states to enact what is now commonly called, “Notoriety For Profit Laws.” Unlike Son of Sam Laws, NFP does not restrict free speech, or as I like to put it you can paint, draw, write, scratch, sniff or whatever - you just don't make any money off of the ill-gotten notoriety you achieved by murdering people.
As a board member of the Houston Chapter of Parents of Murdered Children, I can unequivocally state that the legal sale of items connected to killers is like being gutted all over again by our criminal justice system. It is the most nauseating and disgusting feeling to find out the person who murdered one of your loved ones now has items being hawked by third parties for pure profit.

Recently, a seller offered up scoops of dirt from Ohio serial killer Anthony Sowell's home where he murdered eleven women. Last year, a seller stooped as low as one can get in the bizarre industry of murderabilia by auctioning off dirt from the grave site of murder victim James Byrd Jr. One might recall that Byrd was dragged to his death by white supremists. The seller even offered up pavement from the road where his broken body was dragged. Years back a seller offered a signed t-shirt by one of the killers. New York serial killer/rapist Arohn Kee was peddling 'Rape Cards' in which he included explicit descriptions of his sexual attacks and how taunted his victims, including tell one of them that she was "lucky" to be attacked by such a handsome rapist.

Even public documents are not immune from being sold from the talons of the vultures. Whoops, I meant dealers. The jury list for Florida's infamous Vampire Killer, which included names of prospective jurors and their contact information, were even sold. The autopsy report of murder victim Nicole Brown Simpson is routinely auctioned off. Death certificates of high profile victims and murderers, including Timothy McVeigh, are also for sale in this macabre so-called business.

For some inexplicable reason, a bipartisan federal bill sponsored by Texas Senator John Cornyn and Minnesota Senator Amy Klobacher in 2010 has yet to be granted a hearing. From my perspective a federal law is necessary mainly because for the most part sellers are obtaining their products via US Mail; hence making it Interstate Commerce.

So despite our best efforts, the murderabilia industry continues to thrive, even though most rational thinking Americans would readily agree that no one should be able to rob, rape and murder and then make a buck off of it. Our society has to ask itself how far we are willing to allow so-called free speech to go. But as much as we believe in First Amendment rights, can we legally draft statutes that will be able to withstand constitutional mustard while also restricting convicted felons from profiting off of their crimes?

Angel Rescendiz Ramirez better known as the 'Railway Killer' succinctly put it to a reporter one day when he stated "I'm famous now, and if someone wants to buy my autograph or artwork, so be it."

It's time to draw the line and reign in this so-called industry that re-victimizes victims all over again.

photo credit: amayzun


Online Blackjack said...

what kind of effort to make us feel morally wrong. victims are a simple need to show the world their true colors.

Anonymous said...

Let everyone make all the money they want and take it off the person who committed the crime to cover all the costs their defence, appealsa, investigating participants departments, their total incarceration costs, health care while incarcerated plus hold monies for anticipated years of incarceration costs, anticipated appeals and legal costs,anticipated execution costs & burial costs to also be held. Add to be deducted any civil claims. While incarcerated if they cannot work allow them to access the basic prisoner wage of that money. If there is anything left over from that they may hold that in a truist account for after their release or to gop to their estate if they die with any monies not used up.Trading that can cause offense or distress to the families of victims ought to be simply censored. Free speech doesn't extend to denigrating others.Any participants that contributed to oknowingly obstructing justice, assisting the concealment of a crime ought to have any profits taken to help cover the costs of the crime. Accounts in book or film form by others would be able to still market their story if it contributes to public understanding of such events. Wherever such make payments to the perpetrator they need to declare that so that money can be retrieved byy the state or federal authorities. The USA is a pay your own way country if persons have the means, it's time incarceration, associated investigative and legal representation costs etc., demanded their reinbursments fully where possible.No prisoner ought to either be able to live beyond the basic means of other prisoners either during their incarceration.So restrict very little , but also make persons pay for what they cost if they gain the means.

Dorith said...

What shocks me much more is that there are people buying "murderabilia" including things like "scoops of dirt", pieces of the pavement etc. What kind of person is that??
I really cannot understand this and am unable to imagine who such a person could be.

Anonymous said...

Also disgusting is a seller on one of the online handmade venues. This person uses an altered image of Manson as their avatar. Trendy? No. Idiotic, yes.

cheryl said...

When you call it "murderabilia" it sounds much worse than it is.
I have a friend who has a piece of the Berlin Wall.(which she bought online) Plenty of murders took place there. But that's not "personal" is it? It's political.
I don't believe that criminals should "profit" from their crimes either, but are they? Who is actually pocketing the money from the so called murderabilia?