Cracking Down on 'Murderabilia'

Zachary Godwin has what many would consider a macabre hobby. Rather than collecting stamps or beer cans or other innocuous curios, he opts for something creepier: "murderabilia," items connected to murderers and their blood-drenched deeds. Among his prized artifacts: letters, autographs and pictures from such notorious killers as Charles Chi-Tat Ng, who was convicted of slaughtering six men, three women and two babies in California in the 1980s. Last year, Godwin began corresponding with Wayne Lo, who killed two and injured four on a Massachusetts college campus in 1992. Now Godwin serves as the broker for Lo's murderabilia, which is available on a Web site, skidlo.net, that Godwin designed and runs. There, interested parties can buy artwork and embroidered T shirts that Lo makes at a state prison in Massachusetts. The proceeds, roughly $300 so far, go to a scholarship fund named for one of Lo's victims, Galen Gibson.

Godwin's hobby sheds light on a little-known corner of the collecting world. Though data on murderabilia sales are difficult to come by, such commerce—and the number of Web sites promoting it—appears to be on the rise. Andy Kahan, who has researched the subject in his role as director of the Houston mayor's Crime Victims Office, estimates that murderabilia may be a $250,000-a-year industry. At sites like murderauction.com and daisyseven.com, collectors can find goods such as swastikas made with Charles Manson's hair. The industry is growing enough that some lawmakers are proposing a crackdown. Last month, Sen. John Cornyn of Texas introduced a bill titled the Stop the Sale of Murderabilia to Protect the Dignity of Crime Victims Act of 2007. If made into law, it would bar prisoners from mailing items intended for interstate commerce. The bill has been referred to the Judiciary Committee and is gathering sponsors, according to Cornyn's office.

Murderabilia ranges from the mildly curious to the downright vile. At the tamer end of the spectrum, for instance, there's artwork by killers like Ted Bundy or Jeffrey Dahmer. More unsettling are things like murderers' fingernail clippings or foot scrapings. Daisyseven.com claims to have fashion magazine pages that Wayne Lo has allegedly defiled by drawing vampire teeth and bloodstains on the models' photos. The pages supposedly even have Lo's sperm on them. (Godwin says Lo has told him the items are fake; the Web site won't comment to the press.) The most disturbing wares of all are those connected to crimes themselves, such as photos from murder scenes and audio tapes of victims screaming as they're being slain. While some prisoners try to sell goods themselves through brokers, the commerce often takes place without their involvement or authorization—when, for instance, their letters end up in the hands of murderabilia merchants.

Not surprisingly, the trade has spawned no shortage of outrage. At the forefront: Kahan, who first began investigating murderabilia after reading a 1999 article about an inmate whose artistic works were being peddled on eBay. Partly due to Kahan's relentless criticism, eBay eventually prohibited sales of murderabilia on its site. In the course of researching the trade, he has accumulated a disturbing array of goods, including foot scrapings of "Railroad Killer" Angel Reséndiz, and confirmed the existence of many others—such as recordings made by serial killer Lawrence (Pliers) Bittaker of girls as he slaughtered them. Kahan's investigation into the murderabilia business revealed that in some cases, prisoners were profiting from the goods—a scenario that incensed him, and plenty of victims' families. He took his concerns to Cornyn, who agreed to introduce the bill. "America does not allow incarcerated criminals do a lot of things that would arguably benefit commerce including, for example, frequent shopping malls," says Cornyn. "It is a bedrock principle of our law that criminals should not profit from their crimes; and that crime victims and their families shouldn't be forced to endure the suffering of seeing a criminal, or his/her associates, profit from the notoriety that came from the harm brought to the victim."

Some of those families, however, warn that the controversy over murderabilia can distract from more important issues. "Kahan may be absolutely right that it is self-motivating and cruel to the victims," says Gregory Gibson, whose son Galen was killed by Lo. But "in my case, it is a better expenditure of my time to ask why and how it is so easy to get guns. My energy is better spent trying to do something about that." He says he accepts Lo's effort to make amends by hawking T shirts and donating the profits to the foundation in his son's name. "Selling a T shirt doesn't offend me as a victim," says Gibson. "In prison, what other forms of expression are you allowed?"

Murderabilia dealers and collectors defend the trade as legitimate, however unsavory. Victims' families "have the right to be offended," says Godwin, Lo's broker. "But we are not trying to intentionally harm them in any way." He does concede, though, that some things, like an item connected to an actual crime, shouldn't be on the market. "I'd keep it, but I wouldn't put it out online," he says. "That crosses a line. It is a little too offensive."

Cornyn's proposed bill aims to address another source of offense—the possibility that murderers could profit from their crimes. The legal landscape on this issue is confusing. In the past, some states tried to prohibit prisoners from making money from their writings, but many of these laws ran afoul of the Constitution by violating First Amendment rights to free expression. In the wake of those failures, some states have enacted so-called "notoriety for profit" laws—which restrict prisoners' ability to make money off their wares. But these laws, which vary from state to state, form an inconsistent patchwork. Cornyn's bill seeks to remedy that with a single federal law that addresses the issue through the regulation of interstate commerce, and thus avoids First Amendment concerns. Even if the bill passes, however, it can't stop collectors like Godwin from continuing to buy and sell goods. "It is a sincere hobby, and I think people should be able to own stuff like that," he says. As disconcerting as murderabilia may be, it's here to stay.

Cracking Down on 'Murderabilia' | Culture