|St. Augustine, Michael Pacher (1483)|
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)