Writing past wrongs

Can a new law be used to seize profits from Thatcher’s book?

Writing past wrongsConvicted killer Colin Thatcher’s new book, Final Appeal: Anatomy of a Frame, carries a curious warning on the back cover. In a space typically reserved for gushing praise from fellow authors or reviewers, lawyer Edward Greenspan writes: “Thatcher was convicted and punished. He has served his time. If you think Colin Thatcher should not profit from his book, simply do not buy it.”

The quote chosen by the publisher to market the book is telling. Whether or not Thatcher, who spent 22 years in prison for the murder of his ex-wife, and is now out on parole, should make any money from his book when it goes on sale next month has become a contentious issue. And in Saskatchewan, it will likely end up in court as the first test of a new law aimed at preventing criminals—specifically Thatcher—from making any profit from telling their stories.

In April, reports surfaced that Thatcher, who lives on a ranch outside of Moose Jaw, Sask., was writing a book about the grisly 1984 killing of his ex-wife, JoAnn Wilson. By early May, the Saskatchewan legislature hurriedly passed a law called the Profits of Criminal Notoriety Act. Under the act, which was modelled after similar legislation in Alberta, Manitoba, Ontario, and Nova Scotia, the government can seize the profits from any “recounting of a crime.” It’s now commonly referred to as “Thatcher’s Law” in the province.

Thatcher, who has always proclaimed his innocence­­—and who maintained in an exclusive interview with Maclean’s last week that he was effectively framed—says he isn’t concerned about the legislation. “It’s going to be very obvious to anyone who reads this book—and that includes those who will evaluate it from the Crown’s perspective—that there is no recounting and recollections of a crime in that book, and that the book does not fall within the legislation that was recently passed,” he says. Indeed, his nearly 400-page book begins with his arrest and proceeds to re-examine his trial, appeals and incarceration. “If he had been an axe murderer and described how many whacks he took at someone, that would be a recollection of a crime,” says Thatcher’s publisher, Jack David, who heads ECW Press.

There has been much speculation that the law is mostly a political reaction by a government intent on proving that it will do something to address the book and its controversial author. Saskatchewan’s justice minister and attorney general, Don Morgan, admits that public reaction to news of the upcoming book played a part in the decision to push ahead so quickly. His initial position was to prepare a broader act dealing with victims’ rights rather than rush a last-minute law aimed at Thatcher, says Morgan. He told Maclean’s he believes the act will ultimately apply to this book, contrary to what Thatcher might think, but he said it will be up to justice officials who review the book to decide if they’ll proceed or not.

As of this week, Saskatchewan officials had yet to read the book. (When they requested a copy from the publisher in July, they were asked to wait for its release on Sept. 1, says David.) Ontario has also requested a copy of Thatcher’s contract with the Toronto-based ECW, but said it will not pursue any proceedings to seize book profits.

In fact, these kinds of laws do not have a strong track record. They have yet to be put to the test in Canada, but in the U.S. the first law of its kind, designed to stop serial killer David “Son of Sam” Berkowitz from making money telling his story, was eventually ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court, which questioned whether famous works like the Autobiography of Malcolm X and Henry David Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience would have been written if such laws had existed.

Critics also argue that while the idea that crime can pay is off-putting, it’s dangerous to try and put limits on stories from the accused or convicted. Crime books have played an important role in raising awareness about the wrongfully accused, like David Milgaard. In addition, they can offer important insights about crime and the justice or prison systems. “There are always many sides to stories, therefore the stories need to come out,” says Deborah Windsor, executive director of the Writers’ Union of Canada, which opposed Nova Scotia’s 2006 Criminal Notoriety Act and has been watching the case in Saskatchewan. Authors who have been approached by criminals to help write books are already being dissuaded by this kind of legislation, resulting in a kind of self-censorship, she says.

Saskatchewan’s Morgan stresses that the law does not infringe on free speech. “There’s no intent to muzzle or limit anybody’s right to talk about a crime,” he says. The issue is whether Thatcher is allowed to profit, he argues. For Thatcher, the actual money is not likely to be much of an issue anyway. His advance was in the mid four figures, says David (a common sum for a Canadian book). And if enough readers heed Greenspan’s blurb on the back cover, that’s all he may see even if he successfully fights Thatcher’s Law.

With Byron Christopher