Henry Hill died Tuesday in Los Angeles.
The mobster had a major impact on an industry he–to my knowledge–never tried to influence. In 1981, Simon & Schuster published Wiseguy: Life in a Mafia Family, by Hill, the pseudonym of a man under federal witness protection. Ray Liotta played Hill in Martin Scorsese’s 1990 movie, Goodfellas.
Hill’s book readily acknowledged his participation in crimes for which he was not prosecuted. New York attempted to force the publisher to pay the state everything Hill earned, based on it law barring a convicted criminal from profiting by writing about his life and experiences. New York enacted the first such law in the nation in 1977, called the “Son of Sam law” after accused murderer David Berkowitz, known as “Son of Sam.”
In 1991, the Supreme Court held that the law unconstitutionally infringed on freedom of speech because it applied not only to convicted criminals, but also to persons accused but not convicted and to persons who admitted an unprosecuted crime. The Court agreed that New York has a “compelling interest” in depriving criminals of the profits of their crimes, and in using those profits to help victims. But the state can’t confiscate payment for works that only tangentially refer to a crime. Since then, laws have been rewritten to target convicted criminals who write or sell a story primarily about their crimes.
The New York Times describes Hill’s career in some detail. Horrifying and fascinating.
Similar anti-notoriety laws now exist in about forty states and the federal system. The goal is to prevent criminals from profiting by books or movies about their crimes while their victims suffer financially–and suffer from the added publicity.
The criminal may still write a book or sell his story to a magazine or a movie producer. But instead of paying the criminal, the publisher or producer pays the state where he was convicted. Systems vary. In some states, the author’s victims must sue him in civil court for money damages; judgment in hand, they file a claim with the state against the money received. In others, payments are routed through the state crime victims’ fund; money not paid to the victims may be returned to the criminal, applied to the state’s costs of trial, or used to compensate victims of other crimes.
Other examples: several political figures wrote biographies admitting involvement in Watergate, but were never convicted of crimes. They can keep their profits. An ex-President who makes a passing reference in a memoir to having inhaled can keep the profits. And Son of Sam laws don’t affect a felon who writes about how prison changed his life but only incidentally mentions the crimes that landed him there, because the focus is his personal transformation.
(Photo of Hill and Liotta from the NY Times.)