Ashley Nicole Richards, who filmed herself torturing and killing kittens, puppies, cats and dogs, was the first person brought up on revised federal crush-video charges — which backfired magnificently.
In this eight-minute-and-16-second clip, the cat does not die, nor is it even cut. It’s all foreplay. The long, slow mutilation comes later. And the sounds that come with it defy description.
In July 2012, someone finds this video and tips off People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
That group then forwards it to the Animal Beta Project, a loose afiliation of animal-welfare activists and online sleuths. Thanks to some brilliant detective work, the ABP identifies within 48 hours not only the city in which the clip was shot but Richards herself. They send the info back to PETA, which notifies the Houston Police Department.
The cops go to a house on Locke Lane, in west Houston, and arrest Richards and her roommate, 51-year-old Brent Wayne Justice, who are charged with animal cruelty. They believe Justice was the cameraman. Police seize computers, which they say contain other videos. Richards’s and Justice’s fates are now in the hands of Assistant Harris County District Attorney Belinda Smith, a veteran animal cruelty prosecutor. Seems like a slam dunk.
But then prosecutors from the U.S. Attorney’s Office step in. They want a piece. This could very well be the first prosecution in the nation under a 2010 statute criminalizing so-called “crush” videos. The Animal Beta Project and animal-welfare organizations like the Humane Society of the United States laud the feds. The Harris County District Attorney’s Office drops the charges and hands over the case.
Oops, HUGE mistake…
Richards and Justice are charged with five counts under the 2010 statute, which carry a maximum of 45 years in prison. For good measure, prosecutors also tack on two counts of obscenity independent of the crush statute.
Then something happens that none of these groups anticipated: U.S. District Court Judge Sim Lake tosses the crush video counts on First Amendment grounds. He finds that the 2010 law — just like the one it supplanted — is overbroad and unconstitutional. (However, both Richards and Justice remain in jail while awaiting trial on the surviving obscenity charges.)
The Harris County District Attorney’s Office declined comment. A spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office stated in an e-mail, “We respect the court’s ruling and [are] considering our legal options.”
What should have been a proud moment, and a message to other producers of these videos, backfired. Big. As of this writing, it appears that if you want to produce and sell videos showing the torture and death of cats and dogs in Texas, you are immune to federal prosecution. It’s open season.
In 2010, the United States Supreme Court upheld a lower court’s ruling that a law criminalizing the depiction and distribution of animal cruelty was so broad as to violate the First Amendment.
The law was meant to clamp down on the production and sale of “crush” videos, in which animals are tortured and killed for viewers’ sexual excitement, as well as dogfighting videos. But a majority of justices believed the statute made a huge, unconstitutional leap by staking out a new area of regulated speech. Writing for the majority, Chief Justice John Roberts called the statute “a criminal prohibition of alarming breadth.”
Legislators went back to the drawing board and amended the statute, tailoring it to prohibit not “depictions of animal cruelty” in general but more specifically “animal crush videos,” which the statute defined as “any photograph, motion-picture film, video or digital recording, or electronic image that depicts actual conduct in which one or more living non-human mammals, birds, reptiles, or amphibians is intentionally crushed, burned, drowned, suffocated, impaled, or otherwise subjected to serious bodily injury…” The revised statute also required that the content be “obscene.”
And there it sat on the books, untested, just waiting for the right case.
Enter Ashley Richards and Brent Justice.
December 5, 2012.
Hollifield, who has spent the last two of her 18 years with the Houston Police Department as an animal cruelty investigator, takes the stand to testify in Justice’s and Richards’s detention hearing. She reads her summary of videos made by the couple, called “Puppy 1″ and “Puppy 2.” It’s written in cop-style: just the facts. Detailed but detached.
“Ashley Richards fed a gray dog from her hand in the kitchen. She also gave the dog water from a container. Richards put her hand on the dog’s neck and raised the dog’s front paws in the air. Richards showed a meat cleaver to the camera. Richards asked the dog if it was scared.
“During the video, Richards touched her burning cigarette on the dog’s skin several times. Each time, the dog jerked and moved. Richards bound the dog’s mouth with tape and bound the dog’s paws with rope. The dog tried to remove the tape from its mouth. Richards put on a pair of high heels, and she stepped on the dog’s front right paw, and the dog cried and moved….
“The dog struggled to escape. Richards pushed the dog to the floor. She used a meat cleaver she obtained from the kitchen counter and chopped the dog’s back leg….
“Richards told the dog, ‘I like the way you bleed.’ The dog cried. While Richards held the dog’s body to the floor with her left knee, Richards chopped the top of the dog’s neck with a meat cleaver. A leg wearing tan pants appeared on the left side of the screen. The individual wearing the tan pants placed a black knife on the left — on the kitchen floor — that was within Richards’s grasp.
“While restraining the dog, Richards grabbed the black knife and used the knife to saw off the underside of the dog’s neck. The dog bled and struggled. Richards severed the dog’s head from its body and then held the head in the air. Richards continued to saw the dog’s body with the knife.
“Richards pulled the dog’s guts and organs out of the dog’s body. Richards stomped on the severed dog’s head. She urinated on the dead dog in the video.”
Five days after Hollifield read this into evidence, the Harris County District Attorney’s Office dismissed all animal cruelty charges against Justice and Richards.
Hollifield testified that Richards admitted she was “Cruel Meshalette” but denied that Justice was involved.
Hollifield also testified that, on occasion, some customers would provide their own animals for customized videos.
Just to make it clear to the court that the couple were not thieves, Gallagher got Hollifield to agree that “there’s no evidence that she did anything to them that was not authorized or expected by the people who provided them….They expected these animals to be destroyed. They weren’t expecting property back.”
Like other customers, these willing suppliers of property usually first contacted Richards through her e-mail on the “Ebony Crush Gurls” site, Hollifield testified.
“They would discuss what type of video that the customer wanted,” she said. “They would dictate what type of animal.”
When the case hopped from state to federal court, folks at the Animal Beta Project were pleasantly surprised. They assumed the state would have first crack, but no matter — from their perspective, the federal case was just as much a no-brainer. After all, according to Hollifield, Richards had already admitted to being in the videos; Justice was identified as being the cameraman in at least one video, thanks to a birthmark on his arm; e-mails stored on the couple’s computers showed their business transactions; and, not least of all, there were the videos themselves.
“We were so surprised how quickly the law enforcement — Houston PD and…the DA’s Office — took this and ran with it,” ABP spokesman John Green told the Press. “And we were like, ‘Wow, why can’t every case be like this?’”
Then came Judge Lake’s ruling.
In tossing out the five crush-law counts against Justice and Richards, Lake wrote that the obscenity requirement in the statute really just amounted to Congress trying to sneak a new definition of obscenity in through the back door.
Courts have ruled that, in order for there to be an obscenity finding, material must “portray sexual conduct in a patently offensive way.” But, Lake wrote, “the acts depicted in animal crush videos may be ‘patently offensive’ under community standards, but under no set of community standards does violence toward animals constitute ‘sexual conduct.’”
Likewise, Lake shot down prosecutors’ argument that the statute was valid because it prohibited speech under a concept called “speech integral to criminal conduct.” This exception to First Amendment rights was carved out in a 1982 U.S. Supreme Court decision upholding a New York law banning the sale or distribution of child pornography.
The court ruled, “The most expeditious, if not the only practical method of law enforcement, may be to dry up the market for this material by imposing severe criminal penalties on persons selling, advertising or otherwise promoting the product.”
Because of the particular importance of protecting children from abuse, the Supreme Court has refused to extend the “dry up the market” rationale to other areas, and Lake followed suit.
“The court does not view the protection of animals from pain or death as a government objective equivalent to the protection of children from abuse,” he wrote.
In describing the statute, Lake opined that “Congress has written a law to proscribe speech that seems to straddle a line between obscenity and speech integral to criminal conduct, but cannot be fairly categorized as either one.”
For members of the Animal Beta Project, the ruling was a kick in the gut.
An ABP member who uses the pseudonym Alex Delarge and whose eye for detail helped the group identify Richards in the first place tells the Press, “All of us just went, ‘How can this happen?’ I’m shaking as I talk about it, because I’ve seen some things doing this job for a couple of years now…We all say that that case stands out as far and away the worst thing I think we’ll ever see, really.”
“Crush videos aren’t really obscenity — that’s not what they are,” Stone tells the Press. “They don’t depict sexual conduct in any way in which normally we would recognize that.”
Nobody said that those crush videos depict normal sexual conduct!
That said, the conduct in the videos is indeed sexual for those who perform in them or spend their money on them.
Let’s turn Stone’s argument around.
Pornography is material made for the purpose of inciting sexual arousal, which has nothing to do with speech in any way in which normally we would recognize that. Porn has no ideational or communicative content; its function is purely mechanical, or perhaps hydraulic. Porn is merely long-distance prostitution.
The First Amendment protection of freedom of speech and the press was primarily intended to make political speech inviolable and to facilitate open debate and the exchange of ideas. It protects those who expose the misdeeds of the powerful and influential. More to the point, it protects 1389 Blog and its contributors.
And, he adds, any comparison to the Supreme Court’s 1982 child pornography ruling is only “superficially analogous.”
“The truth is that we are in fact cruel to animals constantly in our society and we don’t take that interest very seriously,” Stone says. “We don’t take it seriously when we’re hungry. We don’t take it seriously because we like to hunt animals just for the fun of it, and all of a sudden, we take it seriously when people want to make movies.”
Stone is trying to play the moral relativism card in two directions at once, and it doesn’t work. This case is about videos of animal torture, not about hunting or processing livestock for food, both of which can be done in a humane manner. Furthermore, the sadistic torture of animals leads to the sadistic torture of human victims.
We must continue to prosecute those who abuse animals, whether for pleasure or for financial gain (as was the case with Michael Vick). By conflating animal torture with killing for food, Stone implies that the former isn’t worth taking seriously.
I beg to differ. People involved in killing animals for food – farmers, ranchers, slaughterhouse workers, and hunters – exhibit no statistical proclivity for crimes involving the torture-murder of human beings. On the other hand, criminals who have been convicted of such attacks on human beings, including children, often exhibit a history of having started out with the torture-killing of animals.
Conversely, he says, Richards and Justice could not have successfully mounted a First Amendment defense against state animal cruelty charges.
“I don’t know why [the DA's Office] didn’t pursue the case,” he says. “You can certainly pursue both of them. I can’t imagine why the state officials dropped it.”
Here’s the problem: Hard cases make bad law
While animal crush videos are indeed sexually obscene, just try proving that! Many convoluted legal precedents make it unworkable to prosecute cases that are about obscenity but not child pornography. The federal government, and particularly the federal court system, is no longer answerable to the American public in any real sense. The federal judges and the Supreme Court are subject to political pressure and even blackmail, so that they regularly twist and redefine the meaning of the US Constitution in ways that we cannot predict.
Criminal jurisprudence is primarily the responsibility of the states. The office of the District Attorney wrongly abdicated this responsibility by dismissing the state animal cruelty charges and letting the federal government take over.
We must not let our disgust with animal crush videos blind us to the fact that the federal government is constantly expanding its jurisdiction and its power at the expense of the states.
Not surprisingly, Jonathan Lovvorn, a lawyer with the Humane Society of the United States who helped craft the revised crush statute, disagrees with Lake’s ruling.
“If this material doesn’t fit the court’s view of obscene or sufficiently sexual in nature to be obscene, then you escort the defendant out of the courtroom; you don’t strike down the statute,” he says. “It’s a failure of the case rather than the statute.”
Having successfully gotten rid of the bulk of the charges against their clients, Justice’s and Richards’s attorneys have asked for a hearing to release the couple from custody while they await trial.
The hearing is set for May 16.
Much more here.