1. kristenhouse
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    kristenhouse New Member

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    Writing about an infamous killer

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by kristenhouse, Jul 2, 2014.

    I'm ghostwriting a nonfiction book for a client who works at a prison in California.

    I have suggested he change the names of his coworkers to avoid potential lawsuits. However, my client wants to keep the actual name of an infamous serial killer and write about the killer's stay in the prison.

    Is it allowed (or wise) to use the serial killer's actual name? This is one of the most notorious killers in America, so many people will recognize his name (think the Zodiac, or John Wayne Gacy). Is there any worry in coming across "slander" charges or other types of legal action due to using his real name? Or should I just stay away from the entire issue and change the infamous killer's name?
     
  2. peachalulu
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    peachalulu Contributing Member Reviewer Contributor

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    If it's a fiction book I'd change the name. It could be kinda crass if the victim's family are still around and the novel has an action feel to it. Plus, it's amazing how the level of admirers might sink if you used the real name. It's one thing for Hannibal to be modeled after serial killers but to actually have him be one. If he was actually Gacy in the book, who would want to relate, having followed the court trials? And if relating is your goal, that's huge.

    I don't know about the legal side of it. Sounds a bit fishy especially if it's a main character and not a name drop.
     
  3. kristenhouse
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    kristenhouse New Member

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    It's not going to be a main character, but there will be a small portion of the book dedicated to this serial killer's time at the prison. It's not a fiction book; it's nonfiction--it's going to be a memoir of my client's time as a prison guard at this specific prison. I'm mostly concerned about the legality of it--I wouldn't want him or I to face legal ramifications because sharing information about this prisoner might potentially render a lawsuit. I just want to make sure all my bases are covered before I start writing.
     
  4. thewordsmith
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    thewordsmith Contributing Member Contributor

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    Charlie? You're going to write about Charlie?
    Keep the name. It'll lend a taste of authenticity.

    Though, y'know, if my momma was in prison when I was born I might've grown up a little warped, too.
    Still no excuse but... Charlie's the first I could think of... And far more infamous than Gacy or The Zodiac. Once you've reached that level of notoriety, you're pretty much public domain. And, if it is him you're writing about, he's so whacked out he probably wouldn't care. He'd be pickled tink that people were writing about him!
     
  5. Lewdog
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    Lewdog Come ova here and give me kisses! Supporter Contributor

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    It could be Richard Ramirez as well. :)
     
  6. Nightstar99
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    Nightstar99 Contributing Member

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    In most countries you can write what you like about anyone. And they are then free to sue you for libel or slander if they think what have written is untrue and damaging to them.

    In practise very few people are able or willing to do this, otherwise journalism wouldnt exist and there would be no tabloids. It seems unlikely a serial killer would be motivated to pursue such a course of action.

    In terms of your project changing the names of your clients colleagues would seem like a good idea. However, if you / he are worried about legal action I would be more concerned about getting permission for this from his prior employer. Presumably he at least signed some state level confidentiality clause when he took the job on and may not be able to say just what he likes about the job he did in the prison he worked in.
     
  7. thewordsmith
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    thewordsmith Contributing Member Contributor

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    Nah. If it were Ramirez, there wouldn't be a problem with writing anything about him. He's dead, right?
     
  8. Lewdog
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    Lewdog Come ova here and give me kisses! Supporter Contributor

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    There still could be I believe. I thought courts ruled that inmates could no longer make money off their crimes and the money made using their name went to the families of the victims?
     
  9. thewordsmith
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    thewordsmith Contributing Member Contributor

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    Non-sequitur - You are absolutely correct that the criminal could not profit through books or whatever. And, indeed, the families of the victims would receive any monies returned through such an endeavor. There is nothing prohibiting the use of such a notorious person's name in passing. At issue here, then, is the question of whose story it is. Ramirez, or Manson, or whatever other notorious prisoner, is not the one writing the story. It is, rather, a guard or some other former employee of the prison, not the prisoner. And, If you are writing your autobiography and you happened to have lived a wildly busy and wide-reaching life which put you rubbing elbows with heads of state and other notorious personages, including dictators, mass murderers, and other high profile figures, there is not American laws preventing you from telling about all of your life experiences, even those which may touch on the lives of such aforementioned and notorious characters.
     
  10. Lewdog
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    Lewdog Come ova here and give me kisses! Supporter Contributor

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    Now I worked at a prison five years, and I can not for the life of me remember signing any type of confidentiality clause. So everything might be free game as long as it doesn't give away security procedures that might cause future harm to staff or inmates at the prison. I do however believe that there are still chances for declarations of libel, so there needs to be some discretion in what is said.
     
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