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The "Son of Sam" Trial: 1978

Case Inspires New Law

After four months psychiatric treatment, Berkowitz was transferred to Attica State Prison, where he ordered his lawyers to drop all appeals on his behalf. Negotiations for lucrative book and film projects about the case began against his wishes. Berkowitz tried to stop the deals by telling the New York Times that his stories of demons were a hoax.

Ironically, even before his capture, Berkowitz had inspired a law barring him from receiving any money generated by his crimes. Anticipating that anyone committing such gruesome acts might later profit by telling his story, the New York State Legislature passed a statute popularly known as the "Son of Sam Law" in 1977. The law required that an accused or convicted criminal's income from printed or film work describing his crime be deposited in an escrow account, where it would be available to answer possible claims by crime victims for five years. Berkowitz took no interest in the money swirling around his case, but claims by his lawyers resulted in an eight-year legal battle before the New York Crime Victims Compensation Board was able to distribute royalties to his victims and their families.

The "Son of Sam Law" separated memoir royalties' from famous convicted murderers like Jack Henry Abbott, Jean Harris, and Mark David Chapman. In 1986, however, publishers Simon & Schuster contested the compensation board's demand for future royalties plus $96,000 already paid to career criminal Henry Hill for revealing his misdeeds in the book Wiseguy (the basis for the film Goodfellas). On December 10, 1991, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the law was an unconstitutional "content-based" suppression of the First Amendment right to free expression. The decision left New York and 41 other states searching for acceptable wording for laws meant to protect the rights of crime victims.

While his trial was the legal finale of one of the bloodiest murder sprees in American history, accepting David Berkowitz's guilty pleas meant that the issue of his sanity at the time of his crimes would never be resolved. As he began serving his time, debates over the insanity defense, the role of psychiatric testimony, and ethical questions about trying the mentally ill continued to grow.

Thomas C. Smith

Suggestions for Further Reading

Abrahamsen, David. Confessions of Son of Sam. New York: Columbia University Press, 1985.

—. "Unmasking Son of Sam's Demons." New York Times Magazine (July 1, 1979): 20-22.

Goldstein, Tom. "The Berkowitz Legal Puzzle." New York Times (May 25, 1978): Section IV, 20.

Klausner, Lawrence D. The Son of Sam. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1981.

Salisbury, Stephan. ".44-Caliber Journalism." The Nation (May 26, 1979): 591-593.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1973 to 1980The "Son of Sam" Trial: 1978 - Insanity Issue Arises, Cases Consolidated, Case Inspires New Law, Suggestions For Further Reading