Serial killer art raises free speech debate
By Daisuke Wakabayashi
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
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
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
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
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 at