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Entitlement Ethics

Should Casey Anthony be allowed to Profit from a Book on Her Life?

Is it Wrong to Sell a Book and Profit after a not-guilty Verdict?

Perhaps you’ve heard that the trustee overseeing Casey Anthony's bankruptcy case has filed a motion to sell the rights to her story so she can pay her debts. In a motion filed last Friday in federal court in Tampa, trustee Stephen Meininger asked Judge K. Rodney May for permission to sell the "exclusive worldwide rights" of Anthony's life story.

Casey Anthony, who is now 26, was acquitted of murder in 2011 in the death her 2-year-old daughter, Caylee. Anthony has never told her side of the story, despite intense media scrutiny of the case.

During a meeting with creditors in her bankruptcy case in Tampa, Anthony said she was unemployed and hasn't received any money to tell her story. She said that she is living with friends and that those friends -- and strangers who send her gift cards and cash -- help her survive.

But Meininger, through his attorney, said he thinks that her story has value and should be auctioned off to the highest bidder.

So, the question I raise is whether it is ethically appropriate to allow Anthony to sell the rights to her story under any conditions.

First, let’s look at the basic issue of whether a criminal can profit from a crime, bearing in mind that Anthony was not convicted of murdering her daughter. If a criminal writes a book about his crimes, who gets the money? What if he sells his personal items, which may have increased in value due to his notoriety? What if he writes a book, does a TV appearance, or is interviewed for a newspaper or magazine story many years after he is released from prison? And what about O.J.? Since he wasn't convicted of any crime, could he keep the profits if he wrote a book about how he killed Nicole?

The rule isn't universal, but judges generally do try to prevent people from profiting from their own wrongs. A classic case in this respect is Riggs v. Palmer, that dates back to 1889. Palmer had poisoned his grandfather because his grandfather intended to disinherit him. Under New York inheritance statutes, Palmer was entitled to inherit all but a small portion of his grandfather's estate. The statutes required valid wills to be enforced, and provided no exception that would prevent a killer from inheriting from his victim. The validity of a will is determined at the time it is executed. When the will was executed, Palmer had done nothing wrong.

The court looked to the maxims of equity (fairness) and decided that Palmer should not be allowed to profit by his own fraud or to take advantage of his own wrong because it would be against public policy.

The Riggs court didn't come up with this idea on its own. The principle is much older and is still around today, although most states have codified it in statutes. For instance, Scott Peterson, a convicted killer, was prevented from receiving benefits under his wife's life insurance policy by California Probate Code.

Of course, earning money and keeping it are two different things. Courts have held that criminals remain liable to victims and their heirs. The cases of O.J. and Robert Blake show that a person can be acquitted of a crime but still be held civilly liable. If the victims fear that the killer will dissipate assets before they can get a judgment, they can try to get an order freezing those assets. So even in cases where criminals elude statutes meant to keep them from profiting, their victims and the victims' families can still see to it that they don't.

As for Casey Anthony, the rationale provided to allow her to sell the rights to her story is to repay huge amounts of debt. Anthony filed for bankruptcy in Florida in late January, claiming about $1,000 in assets and $792,000 in liabilities. Court papers list Anthony as unemployed, with no recent income.

Her listed debts include $500,000 for attorney fees and costs for Jose Baez, her criminal defense lawyer during the trial; $145,660 for the Orange County Sheriff's office for investigative fees and costs; $68,540 for the IRS for taxes, interest and penalties; and $61,505 for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement for court costs.

It seems to me Anthony should be allowed to sell the rights to her story so long as the proceeds are used to compensate others who have sacrificed a great deal as a result of her “crime.” A good analogy is the Ron Goldman case. OJ wrote a book based on his warped perspective called "If I Did It," which has sold more than 100,000 copies. A federal bankruptcy judge awarded rights to the book to the family of murder victim Ronald Goldman to help satisfy a $38 million wrongful death judgment against Simpson.

Just about everyone is profiting from the Casey Anthony case starting with Jose Baez, the attorney for Anthony. Baez’s book, Presumed Guilty: Casey Anthony: The Inside Story has sold over 1 million copies. By the way, Amazon reviewers give it 3 stars out of 5.

Then there is the prosecutor in the case, Jeff Ashton. His book, Imperfect Justice: Prosecuting Casey Anthony, tells the “behind-the-scenes story of the investigation, the trial, and the now-infamous verdict.” It must be well written since his book received 4 ½ stars.

Then there are those looking to profit by their "expert" insights such as Keith Ablow, a forensic psychiatrist. His book, Inside the Mind of Casey Anthony: A Psychological Portrait, aims to explain to people “as much as possible about how this little girl disappeared from the face of the earth by using psychological reasoning as a lens to explore the death of Caylee Anthony.” Sorry, Keith, but you only received 2 stars from Amazon readers and your book sounds boring, like the trial.

Finally, there is Wendy Murphy, a frequent guest on talk shows that dissect legal verdicts, who wrote Casey Anthony What REALLY Happened to Caylee and Why Truth Matters.  In this book Murphy and her co-authors answer a variety of questions about the trial and verdict including the one that all inquiring minds want to know: Is there a real "Zanny the Nanny"? This book must be a disappointment given such a compelling question because it received only 2 ½ out of 5 stars.

Now that you are up to date on the profiteers from the Anthony trial, we must ask from an ethical perspective what are the motives of those who wrote books? Was it a way to vent frustration with the trial and verdict? Or, is it a way to share one’s insights on one of the most watched criminal trials since OJ? Or, was it an attempt to profit from the misery of an innocent little girl and so many like her whose lives are taken suddenly and inexplicably? Perhaps I should write a book to explain my perspective on this issue. 

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on March 22, 2013