Serial killer art raises free speech debate

BOSTON (Reuters) - An online auction of artwork by a serial sex killer triggered outrage in Massachusetts on Tuesday where lawmakers proposed to block criminals from profiting on what they called "murderabilia," setting off a debate on free speech rights of prisoners.

A colored pencil sketch of Jesus Christ kneeling in a desert by Alfred Gaynor, a serial killer serving four life sentences for sodomizing and choking to death four women, went on sale on Tuesday on a Web site operated by a prisoner advocacy group.

It was one of nearly 300 artworks offered for auction through December 18 on The Fortune Society's Web site. If sold, nearly all proceeds from the work entitled, "A Righteous Man's Reward," will go to Gaynor, the group said.

Protests from the families of Gaynor's victims about the possibility of a convicted murderer profiting from his criminal celebrity prompted state Rep. Peter Koutoujian, a Democrat, to submit a new variation of a "Son of Sam" law in the state legislature.

But the legislative proposal triggered its own debate over the prisoners' constitutional right of free speech.

Marjorie Heins, a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University, said freedom of expression extends to prisoners even if it causes emotional distress or offense to the victim's families.

"It's too narrow to say 'it's just this one guy and he's a creep so he shouldn't get any First Amendment rights.' Whether it is a painting or other work produced, there is a social interest in making it available to view it or read it," said Heins, adding, "Prisoners are not deprived of constitutional rights."

The artwork of America's most notorious killers -- ranging from pencil drawings by Charles Manson to a painting by executed serial killer John Wayne Gacy -- fetch hefty sums from collectors of "murderabilia."

"We're taught in society that crime doesn't pay, but here we are allowing crime to pay and it's sending the wrong message to people," said Koutoujian, a former prosecutor.

Koutoujian said the new bill focuses on banning profit from art or books based on the criminal's celebrity and not the content itself.

Massachusetts is one of the few states without a "Son of Sam" law that requires convicted criminals to give money earned from book, movie or other deal to victims or to the state.

America's first such law was passed in New York after "Son of Sam" serial killer David Berkowitz was offered big money for his story. The U.S. Supreme Court struck down that law in 1991 but it was retooled and put back on the books in 1992.

There are more than 30 states with such laws that have been unchallenged, mainly because they are so seldomly invoked.

The Supreme Judicial Court, Massachusetts' highest court, said in 2002 that an earlier version of the law violated free speech provisions in the state and federal constitutions. Koutoujian, a former prosecutor, says the auction underlines the need for the law.

Lana Wachniak, a professor at Kennesaw State University and an expert on serial killer art, argues most serial killers use art to promote a veneer of normalcy and do not care about the profit from a potential sale.

The Fortune Society said its online and studio art show draws work from a wide range of prisoners -- not just killers -- and most items sell for less than $100.

"It's a misconception that we're selling this art for thousands and thousands of dollars and that people are making all these profits," said Kristen Kidder, project manager of The Fortune Society's art show.

The paintings can be found : HERE

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