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Bill Aims to Ensure That Felons Don't Profit by Selling Stories

Crime: A Senate panel OKs proposal to extend statute of limitations for lawsuits by victims and family members over book, movie deals.

June 12, 2002|CARL INGRAM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — The Senate Judiciary Committee, heeding the appeals of crime victims, took the first step Tuesday toward restoring a state law prohibiting convicted murderers and other violent felons from profiting from the sales of books, movies and memorabilia at the expense of their victims.

The committee unanimously approved a bill by state Sen. Bruce McPherson (R-Santa Cruz) that would allow victims to sue their attackers in civil court for damages long after the felons had completed parole and were free citizens again.

"Perpetrators of heinous crimes should not profit from them," testified McPherson, the Republican nominee for lieutenant governor, whose own son was murdered on a San Francisco street.

A handful of crime victims pleaded with the committee to approve the bill, including Carole Carrington, whose daughter and granddaughter along with a schoolgirl from Argentina were savagely murdered during a vacation at Yosemite in 1999, allegedly by handyman Cary Stayner.

"It just horrifies me to think of him being paid for telling how he slit my granddaughter's throat," Carrington told the committee as her voice broke with emotion.

The bill would fill the gap created in California's "Son of Sam" law earlier this year when the state Supreme Court struck down a core provision of the statute, ruling that it violated the 1st Amendment right to free speech. The court said the law unconstitutionally zeroed in on a felon's books, movies, articles and other protected "expressive" works only because they made mention of the crime.

But the court, whose ruling was expected to be repeated in other states, said it believed that the Legislature could create a law to prevent criminals from profiting at the expense of their victims and still meet constitutional muster.

McPherson's bill, SB 1887, steers clear of free-speech issues. Instead, it would give crime victims many additional years to file civil lawsuits when a prisoner or a freed felon attempts to turn his or her crime into a money-maker, such as authorizing personal stories for television movies or creating a cookbook, as Sara Jane Olson, accused of murder as a Symbionese Liberation Army member, has done with her "America's Most Wanted" recipe book.

The bill would extend the statute of limitations for filing a damage suit from one year after conviction to 10 years after the perpetrator is released from parole. All of a defendant's assets would be exposed, including such things as an inheritance or lottery winnings.

Backers said that subjecting them to civil damages not only while they were behind bars but long after they had been returned to society would have a deterrent effect on entrepreneurial felons.

The cost of such suits would be borne by the plaintiffs without aid from district attorneys or the attorney general. But state Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer, who sought the legislation, said victories should be relatively easy to win because the hardest work--gaining a criminal conviction--would already have been done by prosecutors and the courts.

Francisco Lobaco of the American Civil Liberties Union, who opposes the bill, estimated that the extended statute of limitations would lurk over the felon for 20 to 25 years after he or she had completed a prison term and parole.

The bill would apply to 16 violent crimes, including murder, rape, kidnapping, mayhem and a variety of sex offenses. It would not apply to people convicted of inflicting great bodily harm, such as drunk drivers who injure someone.

The bill was sent to the full Senate. If, as expected, it is approved by both houses and signed by Gov. Gray Davis, it would take effect immediately.

Californians have long opposed the notion of felons profiting from their crimes. Particularly galling to crime-victim advocates is the income that Charles Manson has acquired while behind bars by marketing dolls and other items through outside supporters on the Internet. "Manson makes well over $100,000 a year," testified Nina Salarno of Crime Victims United.

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