Freedom of Speech or a Step Too Far?
© 2017 - Stephanie Hoover, All Rights Reserved
Few people are neutral about murderabilia. Some are angry. Others are shocked to learn such businesses even exist. A surprisingly large number agree with Kelly Hutchison when he says that legislating against enterprises such as his would be a violation of his right to free speech.
Before you form any opinion, let's consider what we Americans choose - in large numbers - as entertainment.
Showtime's serial killer thriller Dexter regularly drew more than two million viewers for each original broadcast. The series finale attracted the network's largest audience ever at nearly three million viewers. On-demand and streaming services deliver the series to a new and different fan base, augmenting its audience exponentially.
The Netflix original series Making A Murderer was a nationwide sensation that helped birth countless true crime shows, podcasts and websites.
The finale of HBO's documentary series The Jinx, about cross-dressing killer Robert Durst, drew more than one million viewers the night it aired. The real buzz happened in the days following, however, as worldwide news outlets, bloggers, and social media users incessantly reported on Durst's alleged confession, caught on audio.
Of course, we're not only a nation of TV watchers. Depending on which survey you consult, mystery fiction constitutes anywhere from 30% to 50% of all books read annually. About 12% of non-fiction readers choose true crime. A 2013 survey of libraries showed that mysteries are the most circulated genre, and represent nearly 25% of the total fiction collection.
The point is we readily accept murder as amusement. So, why do so many people believe that selling "murderabilia" crosses some moral or ethical line? Do those who protest it as reprehensible have a point? Or, is this position hypocritical in light of what a great number of Americans pay to watch and read?
While you ponder these questions, meet Kelly Hutchison, artist and former owner of Dark Vomit, an internet retailer of murderabilia.
When you have a website called Dark Vomit, two things seem immediately obvious: 1) you've got a knack for attracting attention; 2) you're not concerned with convention. Hutchison freely pleads guilty to both counts.
The name harkens back to a serious childhood illness. It also, says Hutchison, serves to warn visitors to his site about what they're getting into. Officially, the site is titled Dark Vomit's True Crime Museum and Prison Art Gallery. Unofficially, it is categorized as one of several controversial murderabilia warehouses that sells items ranging from handwritten letters from Ted Bundy and David Berkowitz, to original acrylic paintings by James Earl Ray.
Hutchison himself does not visit convicted killers, nor does he maintain personal relationships beyond the occasional exchange of letters. "I have not put any of those letters and items up for sale," he is quick to add. "Since day one I have been under scrutiny for the items I list, and whether I'm engaging in business directly with the [prisoner]. I understand the law and abide by it."
The law to which Hutchison refers is actually a state-by-state patchwork of legislation commonly known as the Son of Sam Law. Meant to prevent felons from profiting off their crimes, it is named for serial killer David Berkowitz who allegedly received offers of large advances from publishers hoping to win exclusive rights to his story. Critics dispute the law on First Amendment grounds. Many supporters of Son of Sam Laws believe they are too weak.
In 2013, U.S. Senator John Cornyn (R-TX) proposed (for the third time) the Stop the Sale of Murderabilia Act. Like its two predecessors, it will likely die in committee. If passed, however, it would amend the federal crime code to prohibit federal or state prison inmates, convicted of violent crimes, from knowingly using the postal service to mail items of commercial value. Exceptions include transfer of titles to property and vehicles, or securities used to satisfy a debt or pay for medical care. Violation of the proposed law would result in civil penalties.
"I know that there are some bills that aim to prevent criminals from profiting from their crimes, or not paying restitution," Hutchison says. "Regardless, I don't believe I would want to violate anyone's First Amendment right of freedom of speech, which I think is a big reason a lot of these proposed laws have failed in the past."
Still, even if sites like Hutchison's aren't rewarding killers financially, aren't murderers banking on the generated notoriety? "I'm not sure which came first... the chicken or the egg," he says. "The media is what gives [killers] notoriety - the same media that scrutinizes me. I always marvel at this. I am slammed by the same individuals who profit - from their advertisers who support them - by running these stories over and over and over."
As Hutchison often points out, his web site is just one of his interests. He is, he says, first and foremost an artist and his works enjoy brisk sales and a large following. Yet there is often a dark side to his art, as well. In a painting called The Wineville Chicken Coop Murders, Hutchison portrays sadistic killer Gordon Stewart as a smiling chef offering the viewers a plate of chicken. But, Hutchison says, he's not making light of the horrific nature of Stewart's crimes. Rather, he is conveying "...the savage nature of the psychopath. What I intended to express was the callousness that one can have - where they could commit such horrible acts and still have a smile on their face."
Many of Hutchison's paintings depict clowns, something he says he's always feared. Yet, this is seemingly contradicted by his personal collection of paintings by John Wayne Gacy - the serial killer known as the "Killer Clown" who assaulted and murdered at least 33 young men. In his spare time, Gacy performed as "Pogo the Clown." He was also a painter. His self-portrait, Goodbye Pogo, sold at a gallery for $4,500 in 2011.
Of his Gacy collection, Hutchison says, "Gacy is by far one of my top favorites. I have multiple paintings of his. Aside from being a notorious psychopath serial killer, John Wayne Gacy was a self-taught artist and a genius when it came to marketing his artwork. He had enough sense to understand what it took to become a 'listed' artist and took the appropriate steps to make that happen. He accomplished well over 1,000 paintings while incarcerated. In a lot of ways he really started the whole 'murderabilia' debate. He knew how to work with others and really market himself."
Hutchison studies the serial killer phenomenon in general, not just specific offenders, and says he's read a number of serial killer encyclopedias. When asked about noted author Harold Schechter's comments [PnC, Spring 2015] about the public's lessening fear of these murderers, Hutchison says he agrees that some attention has drifted away from interest in the traditional serial killer. That's why his web site offers other true crime memorabilia, including terrorists, corrupt politicians, and insane asylum relics. But crime is still crime, and all crimes have victims. Does Hutchison feel any obligation to them - or any qualms about profiting from them? "That would imply I'm doing something wrong," he says. "My interest in these items is not necessarily to glorify the horrific crimes, or to gather ideas on how to commit crimes myself, or even to condone them for others. It's more of a longing to understand."
As to his inventory, Hutchison says he goes to great lengths to ensure that every item is authentic. "It's extremely important to me to keep my customers happy and coming back," he says. His customer service extends to the inclusion of free gifts like pens that mimic hypodermic needles or serial killer trading cards.
Although Hutchison doesn't advertise his site, he is easily found via internet searches. Ironically, one of his largest sources of traffic is his media coverage. Articles, he says, "...written about me and how horrible 'murderabilia' is.' Hutchison says the future longevity of DarkVomit.com greatly relies on its own marketability. "Nothing is forever. I would be more than happy to sell the web site, my entire collection, and retire - for the right price."
Hutchison believes he gets a bad rap, although he knew going into the business that this would likely be the case. "I did not start this to win hearts and minds," he says. On the flip-side, he says he's witnessed non-profit victim's' advocate organizations "demonize me" to garner public sympathy and financial support.
"People need to take responsibility for their own actions," Hutchison asserts. And, if a purchase from his web site provokes a copycat crime? "I don't commit crimes," he says, "and I shouldn't be blamed for them." Yet this statement is no shield against regular hostile messages and threats. "It is sad that some people feel the only way to convey their feelings is to stoop to that level. I do try to understand and even appreciate others' opinions. All I can hope is that others will try to understand all sides before making judgment." ☁