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'Sammy the Bull' can keep profits from autobiography

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    NMU         NEW YORK         Prior Restraints         Mar 28, 2000    

‘Sammy the Bull’ can keep profits from autobiography

  • An appellate court ruled that victim board does not have the authority under the state ‘Son of Sam’ law to sue for recovery when no complaint has been filed by a victim.

A state appellate panel unanimously ruled on March 8 that convicted mafia hit man Salvatore “Sammy the Bull” Gravano can keep what he earns from an autobiography despite the state’s “Son of Sam” law.

The Supreme Court’s Appellate Division in New York City ruled that the state law limiting the ability of a convicted felon to profit from telling about the crime did not apply to federal offenses, which is what Gravano wrote about in his autobiography. The court also ruled that the state crime victims board, which was the plaintiff in the lawsuit, did not have standing to bring the legal action because no victim of Gravano’s crimes had ever filed a complaint with the board, which is necessary to trigger a lawsuit to recover profits.

The court added that “there remains a constitutional issue . . . insofar as it implicates income derived from expressive activity” but did not decide the case on constitutional grounds.

The crime victims board had appealed an April 24, 1998 ruling in favor of Gravano and his codefendants from New York City trial court Judge Leland DeGrasse.

The Gravano case concerns New York’s revised “Son of Sam” law. The original law was found by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1991 to be “presumptively inconsistent with the First Amendment” because the Court found that it “imposes a financial burden on speakers because of the content of their speech,” limits the crime victim’s recovery to proceeds obtained from expressive activity and reaches literary works unrelated to the crime for which compensation is sought.

The 5-0 decision means that Gravano can keep the proceeds of Underboss, which describes his role as second-in-command in the New York Gambino mob ring under John Gotti. In the book, Gravano describes his role in 19 murders and other criminal activities. He testified against Gotti as part of a 1994 plea bargain agreement on federal racketeering charges. Gravano now faces unrelated charges in Arizona for conspiracy and racketeering for his role in a drug distribution outfit.

The state victims board had filed the lawsuit to force Gravano, his co-author Peter Maas, T.J.M. Productions Inc., HarperCollins, and International Creative Management to give to the board all of the money owed to Gravano for the book.

Attorney Michael Dowd, who represented Maas and T.J.M., told the Associated Press that the ruling was “a wonderful decision for anyone who’ll ever put pen to paper.” A HarperCollins press release stated that the ruling “makes clear that authors and publishers can publish accounts of criminal activity without fear of interference from the Crime Victims Board.”

(New York State Crime Victims Board v. T.J.M. Productions, Inc.; Media Counsel: Michael Dowd, Slade Metcalf and Victor Kovner, New York)

© 2000 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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