The Lifetime cable network can finally release the telefilm “Romeo Killer: The Christopher Porco Story” after fighting the lawsuit filed in 2013 by convicted murderer, Chris Porco, who claimed the movie has portrayed too “fictionalized” and violated his civil rights. But an appellate court has reversed the ban, ruling the TV channel has not presented the made-for-TV movie as an accurate depiction.
The story was based on a true crime committed on November 15, 2004, by a 21-year old student from the University of Rochester named Christopher Porco. He brutally murdered his father, Peter, with an ax and tried to kill his mother, Joan. In 2006, he was convicted and sentenced to a minimum of 50 years in prison.
In 2013, Porco and his mother (whom he tried to kill) sued the Lifetime network and claimed its telefilm was 80 percent false and blamed the filmmakers for portraying his mother as a liar. Porco’s lawsuit alleged that Lifetime violated a New York Civil Rights law (Section 51), which bars using a person’s name, picture, portrait or voice for trading purposes without their consent. Hollywood was shocked when a New York court halted the telefilm’s release, which was only the beginning of an exhaustive eight-year-long legal battle costing Lifetime millions of dollars.
Lifetime argued that the New York law does not apply to expressive works such as television and movies. The network claimed it never intended to portray the film as an accurate account of the actual events. Rather, the telefilm was presented as a piece of entertainment. The first slide of the film contains the statement,“‘this is based on a true story.’ It is not a documentary. It’s not a news account. It’s a fictionalized piece of entertainment.”
Justice Molly Reynolds Fitzgerald finally ruled in favor of releasing Romeo Killer. In her opinion, she wrote that the film nowhere presented itself as an unalloyed truth or claimed the accuracy of the depiction. It was made clear to viewers that it is a dramatized version of a true story where names, characters and events have been changed and fictionalized. Porco himself claimed the filmmakers had transformed the details, so Section 51 does not apply to the film.
The final ruling provided relief to Hollywood filmmakers and writers by protecting expressive work inspired by actual events.
The Wolf of Wall Street Lawsuit
The Porco lawsuit was not the first time Hollywood came under attack. Other convicts have filed lawsuits over their depiction on screen. In January 2020, the real Wolf of Wall Street, Jordan Belfort, convicted for financial crimes, sued the film’s producers for $300 million. His story inspired the box office hit, Wolf of Wall Street, in which Leonardo DiCaprio played him. Belfort sued the filmmakers for fraud and breach of contract and demanded damages.
What do you think? Should convicts have any rights relating to the commercial use of their names, photos or true stories?