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  • Stopping Sam

    Stopping Sam
    By Sarah Etter, News Reporter
    Published: 02/20/2007

    Toenail clippings, ratty postcards, and pubic hair might not be at the top of most shopping lists, but some folks are willing to shell out big bucks for these items when they come from a prolific serial killer residing behind bars.

    Welcome to the world of murderabilia, an online sensation where the possessions and body parts of incarcerated serial killers can make the murderers, and their brokers, a quick buck.

    The public outcry against these collections has increased dramatically in recent months, in large part thanks to one man. Andrew Kahan, director of the Texas Department of Public Safety’s Crime Victim’s Office, began his battle against this strange habit after reading a news story.

    “I read in a newspaper that a serial killer had been selling his artwork on eBay,” Kahan remembers. “I figured that where there was one, there would be others. When I went online to look, I found so many items that it just made me sick.”

    Kahan soon discovered that eBay was full of serial killer mementos and began purchasing low-cost items to see if what he ordered would really arrive.

    “You should see my office,” Kahan says with a laugh. “For over a year, I was an active buyer in this industry. I own the hair samples of five different serial killers, including Charles Manson’s, which is in the shape of a swastika. I have letters and artwork, dolls and action figures, calendars and snow globes.”

    Incensed by what he found, Kahan demanded to know why eBay allowed the sale of these items. The company told him they were not in charge of policing morality on their site. (eBay did not return calls for comment, but has stopped the sale of these items in recent months).

    “Like most people, I was under the delusion that you can’t profit off of your crimes,” Kahan says. “But the cold, hard reality is that without oversight and close watch, these serial killers can.”

    Son of Sam dispute

    One misconception about murderabilia is that Son-of-Sam laws prohibit the sale of these items. However, the line between books and body parts are blurred.

    Son of Sam laws were first established in the 1970s after renowned New York serial killer David Berkowitz, known as the Son of Sam killer, attempted to sell his story to a publisher. Families of his victims were outraged that he might make money off of the murders, and the New York State Legislature ruled that murderers could not earn revenue from the sale of their stories.

    Soon, 42 other states established similar laws, but publishers and notorious murderers with a story to tell have joined forces to challenge the legislation citing that their First Amendment rights were being trampled upon.

    “These laws haven’t faired very well in the courts,” says David L. Hudson, First Amendment Scholar with the First Amendment Center. “There are two constitutional problems with Son of Sam laws. First, they are drafted so broadly that they apply to protected expression and freedom of speech. Secondly, they are content-based laws. Under the First Amendment, laws that censor based on content are subject to strict scrutiny by the court. And usually, that strict scrutiny ends up with a ruling in favor of the inmate.”

    In almost every single case, including the most well known, Simon & Schuster vs. NY Crime Victims Board, the court has sided with the offender, paving the way for their stories to be made into books, screenplays and eventually movies.

    “Most of the court cases we’ve seen have been for books,” Hudson explains. “Hair and toenail clippings, I would argue, do not represent a First Amendment issue. However, for Manson’s hair sample in the shape of a swastika, that could fall under expression because it isn’t just hair. This is a tricky situation that would probably be made on an object-by-object basis.”

    Hudson isn’t the only attorney who says these items are not protected under Son of Sam laws. Stephen Rohde, an attorney with the firm Rohde & Victoroff, represented inmate Barry Keenan in the 2002 California case Keenan vs. Superior Court in Los Angeles County. The court ruled in favor of Keenan and paved the way for the publication of a story about Frank Sinatra, Jr.’s kidnapping.

    “You have to make a distinction,” says Rohde. “Paintings, poems, artwork, articles, books; those are all protected by the First Amendment. Nail clippings are not. That’s an entirely different analysis if someone is selling physical objects relating to a crime. We have an open capitalist marketplace society and we might not want to buy those objects, but until we impose a huge government where Big Brother is watching over us, people can buy and sell what the market will handle. But I don’t think it’s good to blur the distinction between physical objects and other items that are clearly protected by the First Amendment.”

    SOS re-worked

    The outcome of these Son of Sam cases has left many states scrambling to tighten legislative loopholes and procedures to ensure inmates are not selling objects that aren’t covered by the First Amendment. So what can a DOC do to put a stop to these transactions?

    “One thing we did here in Texas was reinforce prison policy,” Kahan explains. “Most prisons have a policy that says you cannot operate a business from behind bars without approval. In Texas, I sent some letters to the inmates who selling their belongings and asked them if they had permission. If they didn’t, they were told to stop.”

    Mailroom security has also been elevated. Kahan says that most corrections facilities have a non-correspondence list that prohibits certain individuals from speaking with inmates, such as victims. By adding the names of murderabilia dealers to these lists, DOCs can firewall communication and sales.

    “Very simply, when we share information across state lines about who these dealers are, we can make a difference. It’s hard to enforce a Texas law on a Florida dealer, but if we refuse to allow packages to go to that Florida dealer, we’ve made an impact. It sounds simple, but it also works,” Kahan adds.

    Another helpful tool is a list of each serial killer state-by-state. Kahan, who created the list, hopes it will inspire COs to keep a close watch on the mail.

    “If you see packages going to the same person over and over again, and inmates are getting more and more money deposited, that’s something to keep an eye on until legislation gets tightened up,” he adds. “And keep an eye on online auctions. If you are seeing murderabilia pop up from an inmate in your state, that’s a good indication that you have a problem.”

    As DOCs tighten up mailroom strategies and legislatures redraft laws, Kahan intends to continue keeping watch on this industry and putting a stop to those who essentially deal in death.

    “Getting rid of a murderabilia dealer is like killing cockroaches,” he says with a laugh. “It’s like a Tom & Jerry cartoon. I chase them and catch them and then they pop up somewhere else. But I just keep going. If I didn’t do anything to put a stop to this industry, I’d be just as guilty as everyone else involved with these Web sites.”

    Related resources:

    Simon & Schuster vs. NY Crime Victims Board Case, 1991

    Murderabilia sites that practitioners should keep an eye on:
    Murder Auction
    "Keep up the good fight, pass the word, and teach others to fight back when unjustly assaulted--be it on the street or in the courtroom. Self-defense is a normal, moral act. So teach your family, friends, and students practical defense against both physical and legal marauders." by Jerry VanCook www.PrisonOfficer.Org

  • #2
    that is sick
    It's Blue Against Green...These colors dont run French boys do...


    • #3
      Yuck! Prisoners will do what they can get away with. Selling stuff through other people for example.


      • #4

        I remember when I worked in NC death row those guys would get letters from females all over the world. Piles of it. And on visiting day they would have really good looking professional well spoken women come to see them. No joke.
        "Death row groupies" well called them. Sick Bi**hes.


        • #5
          Only in America..... gotta love it. Absolutely rediculous.
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