The Cautionary Instruction: Son of Sam Law Prevents criminals from profiting on crime

Friday, 21 February 2014 10:00 AM Written by  Matt Mangino

20101123 cash 150Is Jerry Sandusky writing a book? The disgraced former Penn State coach and convicted sex offender stands to make a profit from the titillating explanations of his despicable conduct. Not so fast, thanks to a Pennsylvania statute referred to as the Son of Sam law there is little chance that Sandusky or his family will benefit by the publication of a book.

The law, which exists federally and in 41 other states, is named for David Berkowitz, the “Son of Sam” serial killer who was convicted for a string of murders in New York City in the mid-1970s. Generally, Son of Sam laws prevent criminals and their relatives from profiting off their crimes in any way. If there is any profit, the law directs that money to the victim’s family

Pennsylvania’s Son of Sam law provides, “If a person has been convicted of a crime, every person who knowingly contracts for, pays or agrees to pay any profit from a crime to that person shall give written notice to the [Crime Victims Compensation] board of the payment or obligation to pay as soon as practicable after discovering that the payment or intended payment is a profit from a crime. The board, upon receipt of notice of a contract, an agreement to pay or payment of profits from a crime, shall notify all known eligible persons at their last known address of the existence of the profits.” 

New York was the first state to enact a Son of Sam law in 1977. However, the law faced a challenge in 1987 in a case involving the Nicholas Pileggi book Wiseguy: A Life in a Mafia Family, on which the film Goodfellas was based. Pileggi wrote the book with the paid help of former mobster Henry Hill.

Publisher Simon and Shuster challenged the law. In Simon & Shuster v. Crime Victims Bd., 502 U.S. 105 (1991), the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the law for violating the First Amendment’s guarantee of free expression, ruling it would have encompassed works including Henry David Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience and The Autobiography of Malcolm X. 

New York revised its law in 1992, and the state Senate has passed legislation seven times since 2006 to try to expand the law, most recently, to reach people held not responsible because of mental disease.

A Long Island, NY mother who drowned her three children in a bathtub is now seeking some of the children’s estate. Since the woman was never convicted — instead found not guilty by reason of mental disease — some legal experts say she could make a plausible case to receive some of the $350,000 estate


Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly & George, P.C. He is the former district attorney of Lawrence County and just completed a six year term on the Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole. His weekly column on crime and punishment is syndicated by GateHouse New Service. You can read his musings on the criminal justice system at www.mattmangino.com and follow Matt on Twitter @MatthewTMangino. His book The Executioner's Toll, 2010 is due out this summer.

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