The "Son of Sam" Trial: 1978

views updated

The "Son of Sam" Trial: 1978

Defendant: David R. Berkowitz
Crimes Charged: Second-degree murder, attempted murder, and assault
Chief Defense Lawyers: Ira Jultak and Leon Stern
Chief Prosecutors: Eugene Gold, Mario Merola, and John Santucci
Judges: Joseph R. Corso, William Kapelman, and Nicholas Tsoucalas
Place: New York, New York
Date of Trial: May 8, 1978
Verdict: Guilty
Sentence: Six25-years-to-life terms, with additional 15-and 25-year terms for assault and attempted murder

SIGNIFICANCE: While there was never any question that David Berkowitz committed the crimes with which he was charged, his case fueled debate over the difficulty of determining the sanity of defendants and the culpability of the mentally ill. He also inspired a state law preventing criminals from profiting from books or films about their crimes. The "Son of Sam Law" was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1991.

From October 1976 to August 1977, fear spread across New York City whenever night fell. Six young people were killed and seven more were wounded by an unknown gunman who seemed to be hunting young women. Hundreds of detectives were assigned to find "the. 44 caliber killer," so-called because of the unusually large handgun bullets he used. When police found a bizarre note at the scene of a double murder New Yorkers came to know the killer by his own nickname, the "Son of Sam."

After the killer mortally wounded 20-year-old Stacy Moskowitz and blinded her date Robert Violante in Brooklyn on July 31, detectives got a lead. They discovered a parking ticket issued to a 24-year-old postal clerk named David Berkowitz for parking alongside a fire hydrant near the crime scene. Police located Berkowitz's car at his Yonkers apartment building and found a duffel bag full of guns behind the front seat. Berkowitz was seized when he came outside, carrying a. 44-caliber revolver in a small paper bag.

Berkowitz's statement to police left no doubt that he was responsible for the attacks. He described unreleased details in the "Son of Sam" letter and claimed that "Sam" was a 6,000-year-old man inhabiting the body of a neighbor, Sam Carr. "Sam" and other Satanic "demons" had ordered Berkowitz to kill by transmitting commands through the Carr family's Labrador Retriever.

Insanity Issue Arises

Berkowitz was arraigned in Brooklyn for the Moskowitz-Violante shooting, as prosecutors in the Bronx and Queens quickly wrote indictments against him for murders in their boroughs. The primary legal issue immediately became whether David Berkowitz was sane enough to stand trial.

A psychiatric report delivered to New York State Supreme Court justices in all three boroughs on August 30 concluded that David Berkowitz was not mentally capable of assisting in his own defense and did not understand the charges against him. Psychiatrists Daniel Schwartz and Richard Weidenbacher, Jr. felt that Berkowitz was "well aware" of the six murder charges, understood that they were criminal acts, and had "the intellectual capacity" to understand the legal process unfolding against him. Yet the doctors concluded that paranoid psychosis left Berkowitz so "emotionally dead" that he was neither capable of nor interested in assisting in his own defense.

Brooklyn District Attorney Eugene Gold challenged the report, obtaining court approval for Berkowitz's examination by prosecution psychiatrist Dr. David Abrahamsen. A month of interviews convinced Dr. Abrahamsen that Berkowitz's demons were "a conscious invention" he was able to control, not a psychotic disorder which controlled his actions. Abrahamsen declared that Berkowitz could understand the legal process and assist in his own defense if he chose to do so. Justice John R. Starkey agreed at a competency hearing on October 21. A week later, Justice Starkey withdrew from the case amidst a furor over controversial statements he had made to the press about Berkowitz's intention to blame his actions on the demons. A new competency hearing was scheduled for the following spring before a different judge.

At the second hearing, psychiatrists Schwartz and Weidenbacher reversed their original opinion. They reported that Berkowitz's mental condition was improving from treatment. While not suggesting that he was sane at the time he allegedly committed the murders, they agreed that Berkowitz was now able to participate in his defense. Their reversal helped Judge Joseph R. Corso determine that Berkowitz was mentally fit to stand trial.

Cases Consolidated

Throughout the proceedings again, David Berkowitz remained determined to plead guilty, a decision he insisted was his own in spite of the advice of his "demons." His attorneys unsuccessfully tried to persuade him to plead not guilty by reason of insanity. Expectations of a guilty plea were so high that a special agreement was reached to consolidate all of the legal proceedings to a single trial venue for security and to save court costs.

On May 8, 1978, in a Brooklyn courtroom, Judge Corso accepted Berkowitz's guilty pleas for the Moskowitz-Violante shooting. Justice Corso then signed a special administrative agreement allowing Justice William Kapelman of the Bronx to come to the bench. Justice Kapelman similarly turned the proceedings over to Queens Justice Nicholas Tsoucalas after accepting Berkowitz's guilty plea for three murders in the Bronx. Like the other judges, Justice Tsoucalas asked Berkowitz if he was making the guilty pleas of his own free will and wanted to know if the defendant had meant to cause serious injury to two young women he had wounded in Queens. "Oh, no, sir," Berkowitz replied. "I wanted to kill them." Judge Tsoucalas accepted Berkowitz's guilty pleas for two murders and five attempted murders.

The three judges returned to Brooklyn on May 22, but postponed sentencing when Berkowitz struggled with deputies and screamed, "I'd kill them all again!" On June 12, 1978, he was sentenced to the maximum term of 25 years to life imprisonment for each of the six murders, plus additional terms for assault and attempted murder. The life terms were to run consecutively, but the New York state practice of "merging" sentences would make him eligible for parole as if he had committed only one murder.

Case Inspires New Law

After four months psychiatric treatment, Berkowitz was transferred to Attica State Prison, where he ordered his lawyers to drop all appeals on his behalf. Negotiations for lucrative book and film projects about the case began against his wishes. Berkowitz tried to stop the deals by telling the New York Times that his stories of demons were a hoax.

Ironically, even before his capture, Berkowitz had inspired a law barring him from receiving any money generated by his crimes. Anticipating that anyone committing such gruesome acts might later profit by telling his story, the New York State Legislature passed a statute popularly known as the "Son of Sam Law" in 1977. The law required that an accused or convicted criminal's income from printed or film work describing his crime be deposited in an escrow account, where it would be available to answer possible claims by crime victims for five years. Berkowitz took no interest in the money swirling around his case, but claims by his lawyers resulted in an eight-year legal battle before the New York Crime Victims Compensation Board was able to distribute royalties to his victims and their families.

The "Son of Sam Law" separated memoir royalties' from famous convicted murderers like Jack Henry Abbott, Jean Harris, and Mark David Chapman. In 1986, however, publishers Simon & Schuster contested the compensation board's demand for future royalties plus $96,000 already paid to career criminal Henry Hill for revealing his misdeeds in the book Wiseguy (the basis for the film Goodfellas). On December 10, 1991, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the law was an unconstitutional "content-based" suppression of the First Amendment right to free expression. The decision left New York and 41 other states searching for acceptable wording for laws meant to protect the rights of crime victims.

While his trial was the legal finale of one of the bloodiest murder sprees in American history, accepting David Berkowitz's guilty pleas meant that the issue of his sanity at the time of his crimes would never be resolved. As he began serving his time, debates over the insanity defense, the role of psychiatric testimony, and ethical questions about trying the mentally ill continued to grow.

Thomas C. Smith

Suggestions for Further Reading

Abrahamsen, David. Confessions of Son of Sam. New York: Columbia University Press, 1985.

. "Unmasking Son of Sam's Demons." New York Times Magazine (July 1, 1979): 20-22.

Goldstein, Tom. "The Berkowitz Legal Puzzle." New York Times (May 25, 1978): Section IV, 20.

Klausner, Lawrence D. The Son of Sam. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1981.

Salisbury, Stephan. ".44-Caliber Journalism." The Nation (May 26, 1979): 591-593.

About this article

The "Son of Sam" Trial: 1978

Updated About content Print Article