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Sinatra Jr., Kevorkian Fall Short as Justices Reject 1,800 Appeals

Supreme Court: The cases had piled up over the summer. All of them got one-line dismissals from justices, who seek new questions of law.

October 08, 2002|DAVID G. SAVAGE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — The born famous, the reluctantly famous and the infamous were among those who had their cases turned down Monday by the Supreme Court.

The justices rejected more than 1,800 appeals that piled up over the summer, including the cases of Frank Sinatra Jr., Terry L. Nichols, Richard Jewell and Jack Kevorkian.

All of them got simply a one-line dismissal, with no explanations. The justices look to decide new and significant questions of law, and sometimes the most intriguing cases fail to meet that standard.

Sinatra had asked the Supreme Court to revive California's "Son of Sam" law and prevent Barry Keenan, a mastermind of his 1963 kidnapping, from profiting from a planned movie called "Snatching Sinatra." He was 19 when his famous father paid $240,000 ransom to free him.

The "Son of Sam" law, one of several such laws nationwide, was named after David Berkowitz, a serial killer who terrorized New York City in the late 1970s, and prohibits convicted felons from cashing in on their crime stories.

But the California Supreme Court struck down the state law in February on free-speech grounds, based in part on an earlier high court ruling in a New York case.

California Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer joined Sinatra in arguing that the state's law was different and deserved a second look. But the justices refused to reconsider the matter in Sinatra vs. Keenan.

They may have done so for a purely technical reason. The California high court said its decision was based on the 1st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and the "liberty of speech" clause of the state Constitution.

The justices could reverse the 1st Amendment ruling, but they can't change a state court's ruling on its own Constitution. In the end, therefore, they had no power to revive the state's Son of Sam law.

Jewell, a security guard at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, said he never wanted to be famous.

But when a bomb went off on July 27, near where Jewell was stationed, he agreed to do seven television and three newspaper interviews describing what happened.

A few days later, Jewell was transformed from hero to villain when the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported the FBI had focused on Jewell as its prime suspect. The story also characterized him as a publicity seeker who may have planted the bomb to get attention.

Jewell was cleared of any wrongdoing, and he sued the paper for defaming him. But the Georgia court of appeals said Jewell was a public figure because he injected himself into a public controversy. To win damages from the newspaper, he must prove the news story was false and that the reporters recklessly ignored the truth.

He asked the Supreme Court to reverse that decision and reclassify him as a private figure. Under libel law, it is much easier for private persons to win damages. They must show only that the press was negligent in publishing false information that hurt them.

"Voluntary participation in interviews to satisfy inquiring reporters should never serve as a basis for converting a private individual into a public figure," L. Lin Wood, Jewell's lawyer, argued in his appeal.

The newspaper's lawyers replied that Jewell's "repeated media appearances" belie his claim that he should be seen as a private figure.

The justices simply turned away the dispute in Jewell vs. Cox Enterprises, a victory for the press, but one that allows Jewell to proceed with his defamation claim.

Kevorkian, the notorious "suicide doctor" from Michigan, is running out of legal claims, even though opinion polls show that many Americans favor giving terminally ill patients the right to a doctor's help in ending their lives.

In 1997, the high court ruled that the Constitution does not give dying people a right to defy state law and to obtain a doctor's help in bringing about death.

Two years later, Kevorkian was convicted of second-degree murder in Michigan for helping a 52-year-old man with Lou Gehrig's disease take a lethal dose of potassium chloride.

Kevorkian, 74 and a retired pathologist, was sentenced to 10 to 25 years in prison.

In his appeal, he could not argue that the Constitution gave his patient a right to die. Instead, he tried a new tack and argued there is "a constitutional right to be free of unbearable pain and suffering."

The justices turned away the case of Kevorkian vs. Michigan.

Nichols, convicted as the co-conspirator in the 1995 bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building, also is running out of appeals. In his latest, he said he deserved a new trial in federal court because the FBI failed to turn over all of the documents in its files.

The justices turned away his claim in Nichols vs. U.S.

Nichols is scheduled to a get a new trial, but not the one he wants. Oklahoma prosecutors plan to try him on mass murder charges in hopes of winning a death sentence.

The justices also turned away several novel claims, such as a right to procreate while on probation, a free-speech right to tattoo and a gun owner's right to use human images for target practice.

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