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John Cornyn’s Quest To End “Murderabilia”

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Senator John Cornyn has long been uncomfortable with people making money off of memorabilia tied to convicted murderers. He introduced his first “Stop the Sale of Murderabilia to Protect the Dignity of Crime Victims Act” in 2007, and when that bill died in committee, he revived it three years later, this time with cosponsor Amy Klobuchar (D-MN). The 2010 version of the “Murderabilia” bill met the same fate as its predecessor—but now, perhaps motivated by the recent sale of a handwritten letter written to a student by Nidal Hasan, Cornyn is trying again.

The Hasan letter fetched $2,000 for the website DarkVomit, a “True Crime Macabre and Outsider Art Gallery.” In a Fox 7 Austin report, Cornyn is cited as believing that some of the money for such sales goes back to the criminal. It’s not really clear how that would work (does the student or the proprietor of DarkVomit put a check in the mail?), but there’s also certainly something uncomfortable about the notion of anyone making a few thousand dollars off of the fact that Nidal Hasan—or anyone else—murdered people. 

Still, “uncomfortable” hasn’t been enough to get Cornyn’s bill out of committee the past two times. A 2007 story in Time about the first attempt to pass the bill explained that opposition came from civil-liberties groups:

“The [new] bill does cause some concerns,” says Marv Johnson, legal counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union in Washington, D.C. “It’s a bit too broad and does raise some First Amendment issues by affecting protected activity.”

Reading that quote, it doesn’t sound like the ACLU was exactly thrilled to talk about defending the right of people who run skeezy auction sites to profit from the fact that someone killed people and then wrote a letter or painted a picture. Still, it does raise a tough question—if you have a letter that someone wrote to you, and the contents of that letter are legal (i.e., they’re not full of child pornography or state secrets), then why exactly should it be illegal for you to sell that letter to someone who wants to buy it? 

On a state level, laws similar to the ones that Cornyn has proposed can and do pass—Texas’s own “Son of Sam” law, named after the 1978 David Berkowitz case and subsequent attempts to keep the serial killer from profiting from the publicity surrounding his actions, passed in 1979. This 2003 Houston Law Review article examines the Constitutionality of the law (spoiler: it’s subject to challenge, though after 34 years the fact that it hasn’t been challenged yet is probably notable), and explains that a 2001 amendment to the law banned the sale of murderabilia, too. Not that it matters too much—the murderabilia trade may be illegal in Texas, but if you’re buying your prison art from a website based in a state without such laws, you’re not really at risk of being caught.

Shutting down the websites that deal in murderabilia can likely only be done by a federal law, hence Cornyn’s repeated attempts to get one passed. He’s been joined in his efforts by Andy Kahan, crime victims advocate for the city of Houston, whose name appears in nearly every story on murderabilia, and for whom the issue is clearly a passion. If they succeed in outlawing murderabilia dealing in the US, sites like DarkVomit can still theoretically move their servers to a country without such laws, but at some point the business—which several site owners told the Texas Tribune in 2010 isn’t exactly lucrative—may well prove to be more trouble than it’s worth. 

Constitutional or not, if you want a more chilling look at how creepy the world of murderabilia is, read this account by journalist Caitlin Rother of finding her own true-crime book on the rape and murder of two San Francisco teenagers on DarkVomit—autographed by the murderer. 

Image via Flickr.

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