Credited with time served for Texas state charges
HOUSTON, Texas––Ashley Nicole Richards, 25, the first federal defendant to be sentenced in a “crush video” case, on February 26, 2016 was ordered to serve 33 months in prison, but U.S. District Judge Sim Lake credited her with having already served the time during 42 months in Texas custody.
Thus Richards will serve no additional time after completing a 10-year sentence on related state charges.
Richards had pleaded guilty to four counts of violating the 2010 Animal Crush Video Prohibition Act by torturing animals in videos made by co-defendant Brent Wayne Justice, 54, and one count of violating the Animal Crush Video Prohibition Act by helping to distribute the videos. Among their victims were puppies, kittens, rabbits, crustaceans, and reptiles.
Harris County Court Judge Jay Burnett on February 15, 2016 sentenced Justice to serve 50 years in prison on Texas state charges of cruelty to non-livestock animals. Federal charges against Justice remain pending.
Twenty years coming
Richards was sentenced nearly twenty years after the Royal SPCA of Great Britain, PETA attorney Shawn Thomas, America Online “Animals & Society” and “AnimalTalk” section hosts Susan Roghair and Dick Weevil, and the Suffolk County SPCA separately but almost simultaneously discovered and began investigating the online traffic in pornographic videos of animal abuse. The videos came to be called “crush videos” because many featured women and/or men dressed as women in the act of crushing animals to death with stiletto heels.
Congress in 1999 passed the Depiction of Animal Cruelty Act to try to stop the “crush video” traffic, but the first defendant charged under the 1999 law, West Virginia distributor of dogfighting and hunting videos Robert G. Stevens, won an April 2010 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that the law violated his First Amendment right to freedom of expression.
First Amendment issues
The U.S. Supreme Court in the Stevens decision rejected the contention of the U.S. Department of Justice, the Humane Society of the U.S., and the American SPCA that the production, distribution, and possession of images of cruelty to animals should be prohibited under the same narrow exceptions to the First Amendment that were created to ban child pornography by the 1982 Supreme Court ruling in New York v. Ferber.
But the Supreme Court largely framed the Stevens verdict as an affirmation of the need for news media and animal advocates to be able to expose cruelty to animals by making use of visual images.
Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press
The Supreme Court reasoning paralleled an amicus curiae brief submitted by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and 13 other news media organizations, whose arguments were based primarily on uses of undercover video to expose cruelty, including by Fund for Animals founder Cleveland Amory in 1970, and by the Humane Society of the U.S. in exposés of slaughterhouse abuses.
Altogether, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press cited 27 examples involving collaborations among news media and animal advocates which it contended would have been criminalized if the Depiction of Animal Cruelty Act had been enforced to the letter.
That gave Congress guidelines within which to try again with the much more narrowly framed Animal Crush Video Prohibition Act of 2010.
Animal Beta Project
The Richards/Justice videos came to the awareness of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals in July 2012. The Animal Beta Project, described by Houston Press crime reporter Craig Malisow as “a loose affiliation of animal-welfare activists and online sleuths,” helped PETA to identify Richards within 48 hours.
Notified by PETA, the Houston Police Department arrested both Richards and Justice, with whom Richards was living.
State cruelty charges were filed, but the U.S. Attorney’s Office pre-empted the state case by bringing five federal charges under the Animal Crush Video Prohibition Act of 2010, which had not yet been tested in court, and added two counts of obscenity under other federal legislation.
Judge Sim Lake again
U.S. District Judge Sim Lake, however, the same judge who sentenced Richards on February 25, 2016, on April 17, 2013 held the Animal Crush Video Prohibition Act of 2010 to be unconstitutional, for essentially the same reasons that the U.S. Supreme Court had used in striking down the Depiction of Animal Cruelty Act.
The 2013 Lake ruling obliged the federal prosecution to drop the cases against Justice and Richards, while the prosecutions on Texas state charges proceeded.
The federal charges were reinstated, however, on June 13, 2014 by the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, which overturned the Lake verdict. Richards and Justice then appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, but the Supreme Court in March 2015 declined to review the appellate decision.
Prosecutor sought more time
“Prosecutor Sherri Zack urged Lake to make an upward departure from Richards’ sentencing guidelines, which set a maximum of 33 months, and sentence her to 84 months in federal prison,” wrote Courthouse News Service correspondent Cameron Langford.
“I believe the crime is so heinous that 84 months is appropriate,” Zack said. “I can’t call what she did murder because she didn’t kill a person. But what she did is tantamount to murder. She did this for financial gain and appeared to be enjoying what she was doing. She talked to the animals as if she were going to have sex with them. They were tortured and maimed. She urinated on them and admitted she ate one.”
“Lake was clearly sympathetic”
Richards earlier testified, summarized Langford, that “She had run away from her Waco-area home, where clients of her mother, a crack-abusing prostitute, had sexually abused her as a child. Richards also claims to have suffered sexual abuse from family members that started when she was just two years old.”
Said Richards at her sentencing hearing, “I apologize to the court. I was young, 16, and didn’t have anyone to turn to. I was basically looking for a family. I met Justice on a chat line and he said he wanted to set me up with a salon business. I saw it was not true when he told me I’d have to sleep with men. I was just trying to get my son back and stay off the streets.”
Opined Langford, “Lake was clearly sympathetic. ‘It reminds me of a case I had years ago with another young lady,’ the judge said. ‘She told me the time she was in custody was the best time of her life because she was fed regularly and didn’t have to worry about being sexually assaulted. I’m not saying that’s the situation here,’” Lake qualified, but then for the second time gave Richards a significant break.
Investigations began in 1997
Efforts to stop the “crush video” traffic began after British Customs in mid-1997 intercepted several videos mailed by one “Jeff Vilencia,” of “Squish Productions,” in California.
The ensuing international investigation eventually brought the August 1999 arrests and eventual plea bargain convictions of “crush video star” Diane Aileen Chaffin, 35, of La Puente, California, and producer Gary Lynn Thomason, 48, of Anaheim. Each drew a year in jail and three years on probation.
Convicted in Britain were Craig Chapman, 27, Christine Besford, 26, Sarah Goode, 22, and Tharaza Smallwood, 22. Chapman was in May 2002 sentenced to serve two years in jail. The three women drew four months each. All four defendants were also fined and banned for life from keeping pets.
A separate but simultaneous investigation brought the December 2000 conviction of “crush video” producer Thomas Capriola, 30, of Islip Terrace, Long Island.
Capriola pleaded guilty to misdemeanor cruelty to animals and fifth-degree possession of marijuana, and was sentenced to serve 280 hours of community service with three years on probation.