There's a long and sordid history of notorious American criminals cashing in on their fame by publishing books, selling prison artwork or hawking their personal effects. Nowadays, the macabre "murderabilia" market has mostly migrated online, where anyone with an Internet connection and an unhealthy obsession with sociopaths can buy memorabilia associated with their favorite mass murderer from sites like murderauction.com.
There's an almost-as-long history of politicians trying to stop them, starting in earnest with New York's Son of Sam law of the late 1970s, which was meant to keep serial killer David Berkowitz and any successors from inking lucrative book deals. Similar laws spread to the rest of the country as lawmakers seized upon a politically convenient way to be tough on criminals while offering comfort to victims. In 2001, after Angel Maturino Reseniz, the infamous Railroad Killer, was caught selling fingernail clippings on eBay, Texas updated its own Son of Sam law, which was initially limited to keep proceeds from books, movies and other media, to include the sale of any "tangible property."
That hasn't stopped a steady stream of memorabilia from Texas death row inmates from winding up for sale online. Case in point: This photo of John William King, one of the white supremacists who in 1998 dragged James Byrd Jr. to his death behind a pickup truck in the East Texas town of Jasper.
This week in the wake of a Houston Chronicle piece on the ongoing sale of merchandise associated with the Jasper killing, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice took the step, apparently unprecedented, of revoking a murderabilia dealer's visitation privileges.
Jason Clark, a TDCJ spokesman, says murderauction.com (and satancentral.com) owner G. William Harder has been removed from the approved visitation list of several death row inmates and has been placed upon the department's "negative mailing list," meaning inmates won't be able to mail him anything. Officials also reportedly revoked his status as a spiritual adviser.
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"We believe that Mr. Harder was getting items from offenders through the mail which he would then place on his website and sell," Clark says. "These are items that would come through offenders on death row and, primarily because of the notoriety of their crime ... That's against policies. Offenders are unable to essentially run a business out of their cell."
Harder's banishment is based on the notion that he was paying inmates for the memorabilia that was on his website, a charge he has denied. This isn't explicitly banned by Texas' Son of Sam law, which only entitles the state to collect the difference between the sale price and the fair market value of an item (e.g. the markup resulting from an inmate's notoriety). It's running a merchandise-selling business that's prohibited.
Murderabilia controversies inevitably dredge up claims that collecting and selling murder paraphernalia is constitutionally protected free speech. Clark disputes that and says TDCJ's policies are in line with its mission of preserving inmate and public safety and preventing crime victims and their families from being revictimized.
Send your story tips to the author, Eric Nicholson.