Killer's online taunts prompt victim's mom to sue
Source: First Amendment Center
By The Associated Press
Date: January 24, 2004
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Mary Kate Gach thought she had heard the last of Jack Trawick when he went to death row for murdering her daughter in 1992.
Instead, Trawick's twisted writings about how he beat, strangled and stabbed Stephanie Gach and killed other women are available via the Internet to anyone who wants to read them. Many of the writings were put there by a one-time pen pal and admirer of Trawick's.
The killer even taunts Mary Kate Gach by name.
"I'm mad as hell," she said. "Those people don't even have a right to speak my name or my child's name. There's got to be a way to keep them from funneling this stuff out of prisons."
Toward that effort, Gach filed a $40 million lawsuit last week in Montgomery alleging that from his prison cell on death row at Holman Prison in Atmore, Trawick published on the Internet "graphic descriptions" of his crimes and gave advice on ways to commit rape and murder. The Web site has offered for sale "souvenirs" including pictures of Trawick and copies of letters he has written, the lawsuit says.
The lawsuit filed Jan. 14 names as defendants Trawick, the Alabama Department of Corrections, Prison Commissioner Donal Campbell and New Jersey Web site designer Neil Arthur O'Connor.
Lawyer claims murderer's speech is unprotected
Gach's attorney, George Jones III of Selma, said at a news conference last week outside the Montgomery County Courthouse that a Web site had been publishing letters and drawings from Trawick that give details about the 1992 murder.
Jones called the Web site "repugnant" and said it was not protected by the "freedom of speech" provision of the First Amendment to the Constitution.
"This teaches people how to commit murder," Jones said.
Standing beside Jones, Gach described her daughter as a young woman "with dreams and plans and hopes," who was just starting her adult life. After suffering through Trawick's trial and appeals, Gach said she never imagined Trawick would be able to haunt her from death row.
"There's got to be a line you can't cross, where you can't do these things," Gach said. "Do you know how many people are finding these things and saying, 'Oh, that's how you do it.'"
Commissioner Campbell and public information officer Brian Corbett stood nearby during the news conference and were confronted briefly by Jones.
"What are you going to do to stop him from tormenting my client?" Jones asked the commissioner.
Campbell later told Gach that Trawick's incoming and outgoing mail was being screened and his phone calls monitored. He said Trawick had no access to a computer.
"If I knew right now how that material is being sent out, it would not be sent out," Campbell said.
Corbett said prison officials believe material that has been published recently may be old material that may have been sent out some time ago.
Trawick confessed to kidnapping Stephanie Gach from a Birmingham-area shopping mall in 1992. He took her to an isolated area where he beat her with a hammer, strangled her and stabbed her through the heart.
Gach's body was thrown off an embankment, where it was found the next day. Trawick was convicted in 1994, and he was convicted the next year in the slaying of Aileen Pruitt, 27, killed about four months before Gach.
Trawick has yet to exhaust his appeals, and no date for his execution has been set.
Mary Kate Gach says she avoids listening to anything about Trawick. But it hurts her to know Trawick has a worldwide platform for his sadistic prose.
O'Connor does not have a listed phone number and could not be reached for comment. In e-mail correspondence with the Associated Press last month, O'Connor said he was no longer corresponding with Trawick and didn't want anything to do with him.
Not an isolated incident
Around the country, dozens of death-row inmates have gotten their letters and artwork posted on the Internet, a practice that torments the victims' grieving friends and relatives.
"It's going on all over," said Nancy Ruhe, executive director of Parents of Murdered Children in Cincinnati. "People say to me all the time, `When are these (victims) going to get over it?' They can't."
Experts say little can be done about Web sites featuring the writings of killers.
"It's the First Amendment," Ruhe acknowledged.
Typically, material from inmates makes it onto the Internet through an intermediary. Prisoners send letters to people or companies on the outside, where it is then posted online.
Free-speech protections prevent prison officials from blocking inmates' outgoing mail unless it presents a security risk or involves a crime in progress, said Amy Fettig, an attorney in Washington with the American Civil Liberties Union's National Prison Project.
"Certainly I would understand victims' being upset, and prison officials have a right to read mail," she said. But "just saying nasty things or having bad opinions is not a crime."
In one test of inmates' rights, a federal judge last May struck down as unconstitutional an Arizona law that made it illegal for state inmates to send out material to be posted on Web sites. The judge ruled the law was not "rationally related to legitimate penological objectives."
Miriam Shehane, executive director of Montgomery-based Victims of Crime and Leniency, said she was "appalled" when she heard about the Trawick Web site.
"I've seen a little of the Web site and I couldn't handle it," Shehane said.
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