Kick 'Em When They're Dead
Bible-beating state Rep. Robert Talton, R-Pasadena, has moved on to beating a dead horse or, more precisely, a dead death-row inmate. On July 29, Talton penned a request to Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, asking for an official opinion on whether executed inmate James Allridge violated state law by selling (over the Internet) artwork he produced while on death row. The state's untested "murderabilia" law prohibits inmates from profiting from their crimes, and requires forfeiture of any proceeds from the sale of "tangible property" that has increased in value because of a person's criminal notoriety.
On Aug. 26, Allridge was executed for the 1985 Fort Worth murder of convenience store clerk Brian Clendennen. While on the row, Allridge taught himself to paint and draw, and his art primarily brightly colored, highly professional renderings of flowers in full bloom against a deep black background have been featured in art shows across the country and in Europe and have attracted considerable attention both positive and negative. The inmate maintained a Web site featuring some of his drawings, which sold (and sell) for $10 as greeting cards, up to $300 for larger works.
To Allridge's supporters, his art was a symbol of his rehabilitation a tangible and graphic example of the man he had become. Others, including the Clendennen family, considered his art, and the recognition it earned him, an insult adding to their injuries. Andy Kahan, director of the city of Houston's crime-victim's assistance program, considered Allridge's art simply a means to capitalize on his death-row status. "He is absolutely nothing except that he has murdered somebody in cold blood," Kahan told the Chronicle last summer. When actor Susan Sarandon's visit to Allridge made the news last summer, Kahan decided to use Allridge's case to test the 2001 murderabilia law. (For more on Allridge, see "No Mercy," Aug. 20, 2004.)
Apparently Talton answered Kahan's plea (Kahan was cc'd on Talton's request to Abbott) and asked Abbott to opine just days before Allridge's execution. Abbott told Talton the AG can't answer his question, because the value of Allridge's art is a "fact" question to be determined in court, not by the AG. So a forfeiture proceeding, concluded Abbott, "would require evidence that the value of the property was increased by notoriety gained from Allridge's conviction, among other things." Whether Kahan or Talton or someone else will actually sue the Allridge family to test the law remains unclear and, at press time, Kahan had not returned calls requesting comment.
*Oops! The following correction ran in our February 11, 2005 issue: In last week's article "Kick 'Em When They're Dead," (Feb. 4), the Chronicle incorrectly wrote that Houston Mayor's Crime Victims Office Director Andy Kahan "at press time, had not returned calls requesting comment." In fact, at press time we had not tried to reach Kahan and instead used his comments from an August article for which he discussed James Allridge and the state's "murderabilia" law. Kahan called last week to advise us of the error. Indeed, Kahan is easy to reach as he reminded us last week at his Houston office (713/247-1410). The Chronicle regrets the error.