A few weeks ago, ending a 14-year era, the Supreme Court unanimously struck down New York State’s ”Son of Sam” law by awarding ex-Mafia goon Henry Hill a cut of the profits from the book Wiseguy and the movie GoodFellas, which tell Hill’s life story. The overturned law, enacted in 1977 after the David Berkowitz ”Son of Sam” serial murders, was meant to ensure that anything criminals earned from telling all would wind up in the pockets of their victims’ families; 41 states followed suit with copycat laws. But the high court ruled that the ”Sam” law was not consistent with the First Amendment.
”It was a nice Christmas present,” says Hill, calling collect from somewhere in America, where he lives under the aegis of the Federal Witness Protection Program. ”Okay, fine, I led a nefarious life, but I changed — I put my life and my family at risk. Eleven years looking over my shoulder, helping out the government. I felt in all honesty I should be paid for my work. I’m doing a training film for the FBI right now. I’ve saved ’em millions of dollars in research, intelligence work, you know, so if the Supreme Court would’ve upheld the law, I would’ve felt screwed.” Although he says his ”soon- to-be-ex wife” wants a chunk of it, Hill stands to make anywhere from $50,000 to $150,000 from the book and movie. Already he’s received $96,250 from Simon & Schuster.
Hill won’t be alone in his bounty. In the wake of the Court decision, R. Foster Winans, the former Wall Street Journal reporter convicted of insider trading, may retrieve $20,000 that was held by the New York State Crime Victims Compensation Board. Likewise, John Lennon’s assassin, Mark David Chapman, may get the $9,000 for a 1987 People magazine article that was seized by the compensation board. And novelist-murderer Jack Henry Abbott could get $15,000 from his 1981 autobiography, In the Belly of the Beast.
”Publishers were staying away (from criminals’ books) until they got the Supreme Court decision,” says Hill’s current writing partner, Peter Doyle, ”but calls have been pouring in for the last three days. A lot of wiseguys I know have been waiting for the decision.” One major mob acquaintance of Hill’s just got a quarter-million-dollar offer from a publisher. ”That wouldn’t have happened last week,” Doyle says. Jail houses, it seems, are about to rock.
But maybe not for long. Victims and their families still have the right to sue. In fact, they now have more reason to do so. ”We didn’t really need the ‘Son of Sam’ rule,” says Boston attorney Daniel P. Leonard, who represents the family of Abbott’s victim, Richard Adan. ”We slapped on an attachment, so that now my clients basically own Jack Abbott. He could spend the rest of his life typing away, but he’d have to earn $12 million before he sees a penny of it.” The effect of the new ruling, says Leonard, may not be what the court intended. ”The market for criminal stories is going to increase,” he says. ”Once that happens, criminals will believe they’ll have a freer hand to get contracts — and then there’ll be more money for victims to go after.”
Basing its ruling on freedom of speech, the Supreme Court was careful to leave to the states the option of drafting a less overtly unconstitutional version of a ”Son of Sam” law. Wiseguy author and GoodFellas cowriter Nicholas Pileggi hopes they do. ”I think a really good law should be on the books. If a guy like Henry Hill makes $300,000 to $400,000, he should be liable for that. I have no problem with a law compensating victims of crimes. But the old law put a body slam on the First Amendment.” Even Hill supports reform: ”Charles Manson,” he says, ”doesn’t deserve anything.”
One expert who is not a fan of the court’s ruling is crime writer Stephen Michaud, coauthor of Murderers Among Us: Unsolved Homicides, Mysterious Deaths, and Killers at Large. ”Mass killers are eager students of each other’s careers, and they get it in their heads they’ll have a moment of glory with an Uzi,” Michaud says. ”They’re right now saying, ‘Here’s the answer to my problems. Not only will I get famous, but rich, too.’
”If you look at it from a criminal’s point of view,” he adds, ”the Supreme Court is saying you can get paid for killing. I can see someone writing to a crime writer: ‘Three days from now a 15-year-old girl will be found dismembered two blocks from your house, and I want you to help me write about it.’ I think it’s inevitable that it’s going to happen. I think there’s a real danger.” — With reporting by Mark Harris