Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Success in Sin: St. Augustine's Confessions and the Son of Sam Law (Simon & Schuster, Inc. v. Members of NY State Crime Victims Bd., 1991)

St. Augustine, Michael Pacher (1483)
Thou shalt not profit from your sin, especially serial killing.  The Son of Sam Law was passed in 1977 in New York with the purpose of preventing criminals from capitalizing on their crimes.  This asset forfeiture law specified that monies earned from autobiographies of criminals shall first be made available to the victims of the crimes.  The notorious Son of Sam (David Berkowitz) murdered 6 people and wounded 7 others in New York City.  Because of speculation that book publishers were offering Berkowitz large sums of money to publish his story, the New York Legislature quickly drafted and passed the Son of Sam Law to prevent a seeming injustice that Berkowitz could become rich from the retelling the story of his crimes.

The law New York passed (many states passed similar laws) defined "criminal" very, very broadly.  That definition was challenged in the U.S. Supreme Court case Simon & Schuster, Inc. v. Members of NY State Crime Victims Bd., 502 US 105, (1991).  The law defined "criminal" as follows:
[a] person convicted of a crime" to include "any person convicted of a crime in this state either by entry of a plea of guilty or by conviction after trial and any person who has voluntarily and intelligently admitted the commission of a crime for which such person is not prosecuted.

The definition includes anyone who has confessed to a crime, yet was not prosecuted for that crime.  As Justice O'Connor noted, such a broad definition would include Henry David Thoreau, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King,  and St. Augustine.  "[The law] would have escrowed payment for such works as... the Confessions of Saint Augustine, in which the author laments 'my past foulness and the carnal corruptions of my soul,' one instance of which involved the theft of pears from a neighboring vineyard."  Simon & Schuster, 502 U.S. at 121

For this reason, the Supreme Court reversed the lower court, ruling that the New York Son of Sam Law encroached on speech protected under the First Amendment.  The law was not narrowly tailored to advance the legitimate government interest in compensating victims from financial fruits of the crime. Simon & Schuster, 502 U.S. at 123.

The image is from an altar panel by Michael Pacher, a Northern Renaissance painter, and depicts an apocryphal scene in which St. Augustine met a young boy playing with water and a spoon.  St. Augustine, perplexed by this meaningless form of play, asked the boy what he was doing.  The boy replied, "My game is as pointless as your efforts to understand the Holy Trinity with a rational mind."  As St. Augustine acknowledged in his Confessions, "We are too weak to discover Truth by reason alone." (Bk. IV, Chap. 5)


  1. Glad to see the Edge of Law is back! Spoon and water, a lovely image and a great metaphor. So why, then, did he write a million words on the subject?

  2. The child did not show up soon enough.

    The story supposedly comes from a highly dubious letter from St. Augustine to Cyril of Jerusalem.

    But, this Parable of the Holy Trinity pops up in Renaissance art, Benozzo Gozzoli's mural (1464) in the Chapel of St. Augustine being the most famous.

  3. I should note that I have further manipulated the story. The boy is trying to transfer the Mediterranean sea into a pit he dug in the sand one spoonful at a time. The original story reminds me of Monkey pissing on the 5th pillar of the world. "Silly monkey, you never left the palm of my hand."

    1. Ah, Monkey, I think he is hiding around the corner someplace, isn´t he_