Texas Law Would Prevent Sale of 'Murderabilia'

Convicted murderers are profiting from their notoriety by selling "murderabilia" to the public. Texas Sen. John Cornyn has recently introduced legislation that will crack down on sellers of the merchandise and prohibit prisoners from profiting from it.

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ALEX COHEN, host:

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COHEN: But first to a macabre hobby, collecting murderabilia - that's the term used for the belongings of killers. Everything from autographs and artwork, even the fingernails and hair of murderers can be found for sale online. One current auction involves Coral Eugene Watts. He's confessed to killing 13 women. His trial in the murder of a Michigan college student began last week. A letter belonging to Watts is currently selling for more than $55. The families of his victims are outraged.

Larry Schooler reports.

LARRY SCHOOLER: It wasn't easy for Harriet Semander to forget about Coral Eugene Watts, the man who confessed to killing her daughter, Elena, more than 20 years ago.

Unidentified Man #1: Ellen Tam was hanged. Margaret Fossi was asphyxiated. Elena Semander was strangled and left in a trash dumpster.

Unidentified Man #2: He is a cold-blooded, diabolical killing machine.

SCHOOLER: Watts was a notorious serial killer whose case made "60 Minutes" and Court TV. Watts's ubiquitous presence haunted Harriet Semander. But those feelings slowly started to fade.

Ms. HARRIET SEMANDER (Elena Semander's Mother): I had reached the point after he was convicted and sentenced to life without parole that I could look, you know, remember Elena without seeing his face. All that has come back now.

SCHOOLER: That's because Semander learned people are buying items linked to Coral Eugene Watts, like letters and envelopes with his handwriting on Internet sites that specialize in merchandize from convicted felons. The sites have names like murderauction.com and prisonart.org.

Murderauction lists items like Charles Manson's fingerprint chart or his handprints on a letter, or a Jeffrey Dammer autograph card. Bit by bit, Andy Kahan has been buying these items to prove a point, not to add to a personal murderabilia collection. Khan is director of the Mayor's Crime Victims Office in Houston. He lobbied Republican U.S. Senator John Cornyn of Texas to introduce a bill in Congress to ban prisoners from selling items through the mail.

Mr. ANDY KAHAN (Director, Mayor's Crime Victims Office): Well, let me tell you, from a victim's perspective there's nothing more nauseating and disgusting than to find out the person who murdered one of your loved ones now has items being hawked by third parties for pure profit. It's blood money, plain and simple.

Mr. ED MEAD (Prisonart.org): You know, I don't see why these politicians want to climb up the ladder of success on the backs of poor and impoverished prisoners. I mean, Jesus, leave us alone.

SCHOOLER: That's Ed Mead, an ex-con and the proprietor of prisonart.org, where prisoners can sell original works of art. Mead has rules about what he'll sell - nothing he considers racist, sexist or homophobic, for instance - but he's all for letting prisoners benefit financially from original artwork.

Mr. MEAD: One of the reasons that these guys are in there is because they have this low self-esteem, this low opinion of themselves. And while they're in their families are often on welfare or could use some assistance. Or these guys could need to save money for their release and to help them out and ease the burden. So you know, if you can help them out, what's the downside?

SCHOOLER: Mead and others believe Senator John Cornyn's bill violate the First Amendment to the constitution. In fact, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a state law that kept prisoners from profiting off of artistic depictions of their crime. The crime victims advocate Andy Kahan says the bill doesn't violate a prisoner's First Amendment rights.

Mr. KAHAN: If you want to draw, paint, doodle, sketch, or whatever, feel free to do so. You're just not going to make any money off of it. And if you're truly remorseful, then go ahead and ship your artwork out and let all proceeds go back to the victim's families. You shouldn't make one red cent.

SCHOOLER: For her part, Harriet Semander doesn't want to make any money off of items sold by her daughter's killer or any prisoner. She even got rid of her computer to avoid ever seeing prison merchandize being sold on the Internet.

Ms. SEMANDER: I feel like that's Coral Eugene Watts reaching out from the prison and strangling me. If I can put it so bluntly, I don't think they should have that right. They took that right away from my daughter and the other victims.

SCHOOLER: Senator Cornyn's bill on murderabilia is expected to be heard in the Senate Judiciary Committee later this year. In the mean time, an estimated 200 inmates will continue testing the market for their creativity and their notoriety.

For NPR News, I'm Larry Schooler.

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