Update: Saskatchewan Minister Don Morgan has confirmed the province willl seek to recover any money due Colin Thatcher on the publication of his book, Final Appeal: Antomy of a Frame. The goverrnment intends to ask for voluntary payment but will ask the author and publisher why they believe the law does not apply to them.
There’s a dust-up underway in Saskatchewan — with implications for publishers and writers across Canada — over convicted murderer Colin Thatcher’s book about his trials.
Thatcher, who grew up in an influential Saskatchewan family where his father once served as premier, has put out his version of his arrest and conviction for the murder of his ex-wife, JoAnn Wilson.
Final Appeal: Anatomy of a Frame is due in bookstores this week from the Toronto publisher ECW Press.
I haven’t read the book. A reviewer who has, John Gormley of the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix, writes here that he can’t put his copy down. He says ”Thatcher weaves together a masterful tale.” But he doesn’t believe a word of it.
Thatcher argues he’s been framed. And the Saskatchewan government has passed a special law, the Profits of Criminal Notoriety Act, to strip him of any profits from the book.
Ironically, Thatcher says he doesn’t care because according to the law, the profits would go to the children of his ex-wife.
The Saskatchewan law is objectionable for several reasons:
- It singles out a particular individual. That’s not the way to design legislation that is meant to affect the general welfare.
- It has far-reaching clauses, including one that would even recapture the earnings of books authored by criminals “recollecting or expressing thoughts or feelings” about a crime.
- It has a chilling effect on freedom of expression — just another form of censorship.
I’m concerned about the law not because of the impact it may have on Thatcher or his profits. I’m concerned for its effect on others, in the future, who may be in quite different situations than Thatcher.
Right now, I’m researching a historical example of a wrongful conviction where the presumed murderer was hanged. Someone else later confessed to the crime. I’ll be using the information in a magazine article and perhaps a book.
Of course, the law wouldn’t affect me. But how about someone who’s been convicted and wants to publish a book that argus their innocence — like Thatcher is doing?
Considering the number of wrongful convictions that we’ve recorded in Canada, I feel uncomfortable about interfering with one’s right to argue their innocence — even someone as apparently guilty as Thatcher.
Sure, the law doesn’t ban the book outright, it just takes anyway any compensation the author might earn.
When it comes to someone putting down their ideas on paper, and publishing it for the world to judge, that’s exactly what should happen – let the world make its judgment.
Yes, this covers hate literature, too. Just as Thatcher apparently makes a weak case for his innocence, let other purveyors of extreme views be judged by their words. Distasteful words are best fought by reason, not repression.
Erna Paris, the Canadian author of several outstanding books on international affairs, makes the argument against censorship in general in this article in The Globe and Mail.
She deals specifically with the banning of To Kill a Mockingbird (what not, again?). But her approach is more historical.
“The book banners,” she writes, “have always been with us and I’m sorry to say they have no plans to leave.”
The best we can do, she adds, is shore up the courage of those in the front lines. “They don’t need to back down at the slightest hint of dissent.”
A couple of things have got me thinking about authors and crime, and how the two fit together so naturally in a literary sense.
A promo on TV this week for a showing of In Cold Blood, Truman Capote’s remarkable book about the slaying of a Kansas farm family, reminded me of the power of this genre of story telling. Capote’s book, as you’ll know, is regarded as having created a new literary style, the non-fiction novel.
I re-read the book recently and found it even more compelling than on my first go-round. The movie, which I’ve never seen, probably tells the tale in an even more harrowing fashion. It was filmed using the actual crime scenes – the house where the murders occurred, the store when the two killers bought their weapons, even some of the people who served on the jury are cast in their real life roles.
The other event that got me on this topic was the passage by the Saskatchewan legislature of its new law to prevent criminals from benefitting financially from their crimes, either by writing books, or selling memorabilia.
It’s aimed at diverting any profits Colin Thatcher might earn from his book, Final Appeal: Anatomy of a Frame, to be published by ECW Press, Toronto.
Thatcher stands convicted of arranging the murder of his ex-wife JoAnne Wilson. He served 22 years before being paroled in 2006. He still maintains his innocence, which accounts for the title of his book.
The Saskatchewan law, the Profits of Criminal Notoriety Act, sailed through the Legislature in just eight days. Its stated purpose “is to prevent persons convicted of, or charged with, a designated crime from financially exploiting the notoriety of their crimes.” Proceeds would be diverted to victims of crime.
Jack Davidson, ECW publisher, thinks the law may not apply to Thatcher’s book because it refers specifically to “the recounting of a crime.” Thatcher’s book deals not directly with the crime but with his legal struggle after his arrest.
I haven’t been able to find anything about the Thatcher book on the ECW web site. Surprising — you’d think they’d post a statement on the issue.
The Saskatchewan law is the latest in a long series of “Son of Sam” laws, dating back to a New York state law of the 1970s after the “Son of Sam” murders committed by David Burkowitz. The U.S. Supreme Court found that law unconstitutional in 1991 on the grounds that it was “overinclusive.”
New York, and other states, have since passed more specific laws designed to meet First Amendment tests.
Ask the men and women who write about crime — either fiction or non-fiction – and I’m sure you’ll get a mixed reaction to these laws.
(I think it’s a bit ironic that Canada’s legendary hangman, Arthur Ellis, is memoralized by having his name on the awards given out by the Crime Writers of Canada.)
Most people will probably agree that the idea of a convicted criminal profiting from his crimes offends the moral standards of society.
But well-meaning measures too often have unintended consequences. They can be used to reach out and take in a far wider range of cases than lawmakers ever intended. For that reason, I’m against laws of this type.
The Canadian Side of Automotive History
Neil Reynolds has a marvellous column in The Globe and Mail on the Canadian part in the history of General Motors. It helps one realize how much this country’s past has been bound up in making cars. Read it here.
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