EvidenceProf Blog

Editor: Colin Miller
Univ. of South Carolina School of Law

Friday, March 17, 2017

Entertainment Weekly's New True Crime Feature, Rebecca Schaeffer & Anti-Stalking Laws

Yesterday, Entertainment Weekly posted "When Devotion Turns Deadly," the first article for their new feature, http://truecrime.ew.com:

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The article, by Joe McGovern, focuses on the 1989 murder of Rebecca Schaeffer at the hands of a stalker who had obtained her address through a private investigator. Schaeffer is best remembered for the CBS sitcom, "My Sister Sam," and, as McGovern notes, "there is a generation of people largely unaware of Schaeffer’s story." It's a story that caused a sea change in the way the law treats stalking.

Before 1990, there were no anti-stalking statutes. As a result, you could have real life situations like this one from Karen A. Brooks, The New Stalking Laws: Are They Adequate to End Violence, 14 Hamline J. Pub. L. & Pol'y 259 (1993):

Gail is a night shift cashier and money counter at a Toys 'R Us store. A maintenance worker named Ed frequently asks Gail to go out with him but Gail refuses Ed's requests for dates, telling him to leave her alone. Despite these requests, Ed continually stalks her in the store, stopping his work at the end of the aisle to stare at Gail. He tells her, “You're beautiful, but I guess you know that.” Gail believes that “Ed is invading my privacy, which is strange when you work in a big store like that.” She wonders how carefully Ed has scrutinized her work routine such that he always knows where she is. Why does Ed approach her only when she is alone? As she ponders these questions, Gail learned that another woman at the store quit her job because Ed had been following her around. The former employee found him “spooky.”

During the same time, store managers received anonymous letters which contained death threats to kill them because the sender believed they were having sex with Gail. More letters were received a week later claiming the sender had information concerning the rape and murder of a female employee at the Toys 'R Us store. After an initial investigation resulting in no suspects, police closed the case. However, nine months later store managers received more anonymous letters containing death threats.

Police arrested Ed because they recovered a duffel bag in the vicinity of the Toys 'R Us store linked to Ed by paperwork found in the bag. Ed was charged with making terroristic threats to store managers. Gail was terrified when she learned the duffel that Ed routinely carried to work contained a kitchen carving knife twelve inches long, a thin sheath knife, and rubber surgical gloves.

On the day of his arrest, police searched another duffel in Ed's possession. Police found a large kitchen knife. Officers also discovered handwritten notes in Ed's pockets similar to the threatening letters received at the Toys 'R Us store, as well as notes detailing the descriptions of the store managers' license plate numbers and vehicle descriptions.

After this incriminating evidence was seized, the police searched Ed's apartment. The fruits of this search proved Gail's fears. Ed had been keeping a daily record of Gail's activities for twelve months. The detailed entries tracked Gail's routine activities; Ed's observations of Gail as they sat at the same bus stop, vivid descriptions of what she wore to work, with whom she had lunch, and what time she completed her work shift. Ed's diary also contained several entries indicating that he had been watching her apartment for signs of her presence at home.

Gail had no legal course of action to have charges brought against Ed for his stalking behavior because at the time Minnesota had no stalking statute. Ed made no overt act towards Gail which would have allowed police to intervene, although Ed may have planned to kill Gail with the knives and gloves found in his duffel. (emphasis added).

But the murder of Rebecca Schaeffer changed all that. According to the Criminal Court, City of New York, Kings County in People v. Payton, 612 N.Y.S.2d 815 (1994),

The first anti-stalking bill was passed in California in 1990 following the fatal shooting of actress Rebecca Schaeffer by an obsessed fan. New York then joined a growing number of states that impose special criminal penalties for stalking....Lawmakers in at least thirty nine states have anti-stalking laws on the books.

In the same year as the Payton opinion, Congress passed the Driver's Privacy Protection Act, which was also crafted in response to Schaeffer's murder. Now, every state has an anti-stalking law, see, e.g., Stanley v. Jones. You can find your own states anti-stalking law at this website.

Sometimes, crime involving high profile victims can lead to nonsensical changes in the law, such as the abolition of the diminished capacity defense after misreporting on the Twinkie defense in the trial of Dan White for murdering Harvey Milk. But in this case, the anti-stalking laws passed in the wake of Rebecca Schaeffer have benefited many stalking victims, both those who have been stalked in person and online.



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