What We Learned From the Crush Video Trial — UPDATED
Brent Justice shortly before his 2012 arrest.
Update, Feb. 15: Brent Justice has been sentenced to 50 years in prison.
On February 10, a Harris County District Court judge found Brent Wayne Justice guilty of animal cruelty — specifically, the filmed torture and slaughter of a pit bull puppy that Justice and co-defendant Ashley Richards sold as part of their "crush" video business.
But Justice could just have been easily been found guilty of a slightly less heinous crime: wasting everyone's freaking time.
Representing himself, Justice prolonged a guilt phase of the trial that was inevitable; and continues to prolong a punishment phase — after five days, the trial still isn't over.
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The pair were charged with animal cruelty in 2012, and subsequently charged in federal court under a 2010 statute criminalizing the sale and distribution of crush videos. Richards ultimately pleaded guilty in both cases, and she testified against Justice in the state's case. But Justice fought tooth and nail over his three and a half years in Harris County Jail, filing motion after ridiculous motion in a sort of kitchen-sink defense approach. Justice accused the state of prosecutorial misconduct; he claimed the state's animal cruelty statute was unconstitutional because it "attack[s] and forbid[s] the Jewish and other religious faith ritual slaughter method." In an apparent effort to be found incompetent to stand trial in 2014, he claimed that he suffered from auditory and visual hallucinations.
Justice was appointed three attorneys, but he evidently believed he was brighter than any of them, because he insisted on representing himself. In what's known as a Faretta hearing, defendants who want to proceed pro se must show that they understand the inherent risks and disadvantages. Justice met the requirements and was granted the ability to dig his own grave.
The public couldn't have asked for a better prosecutor than Jessica Milligan. She marshaled a mountain of evidence against Justice, and perhaps most important, she got Richards to flip. At first blush, Richards may appear to be the more depraved of the crush duo, as she's the one actually on camera, torturing and killing cats, dogs and other animals. That's by design, of course: At trial, Milligan was able to paint a picture of Justice as a gifted predator; a man able to prey on vulnerable women like Richards, a victim of childhood sexual abuse who was living on the streets as a teen, prostituting herself, when she met Justice.
The Waco-area native spent the first part of childhood with her crack-addicted, prostitute mother, where, she testified, she was molested by the men who would visit. She wound up running away in her early teens, staying with her grandmother, but there was more abuse there. Children's Protective Services got involved, but didn't do a good job with the "protective" part. Richards, who testified to attempting suicide four or five times, figured she'd be better on the streets, on her own, and she made money the only way she knew how.
Evidence at trial showed that Justice had already dreamed up his crush business by the time he met Richards on a phone chat line. The man who would later claim a "kosher" defense talked to her about the Bible.
She and a friend eventually moved to Houston, and Richards began living with Justice — a nomadic existence, crashing with Justice's family members, and, for a while, sleeping in cars.
Justice had Richards start with videos of her stomping crawfish and crabs. It was a safer, more profitable venture than turning tricks. Over time, Justice progressed to cats and dogs. Justice handled the advertising, the promotion, the business of building clients. And he probably figured that he was safe from arrest and prosecution, as long as he didn't appear on camera. Furthermore, crush videos are an underground industry, and it can be difficult to even figure out where the videos are being recorded.
Unfortunately for Richards and Justice, a group of international animal welfare advocates who call themselves the Animal Beta Project had found a clip the pair produced, and were able to pinpoint the city from clues in the video itself. They notified contacts at PETA, who notified the Houston Police Department. In an extremely impressive feat of investigation, Officer Suzanne Hollifield was able to identify Richards and Justice as being likely suspects within 24 hours, and the couple were swiftly arrested and charged. Milligan's subsequent ability to so thoroughly shred Justice at trial was a direct result of the incredible investigative work accomplished by Hollifield and her colleagues.
Milligan offered Justice a plea deal for 50 years in prison. Not an enticing offer, but a seemingly appropriate one, given the amount of evidence — including a confession Justice unsuccessfully tried to suppress — against the defendant. But Justice decided to roll the dice, resulting in a trial that veered from mind-numbing monotony, to horror, to surrealism, to idiotic theatrics. Here are some highlights:
WHEN ALL ELSE FAILS, PULL A FRED SANFORD
On the '70s sitcom Sanford and Son, whenever Watts junkman Fred Sanford got particularly upset, he'd clutch his heart, jut out his arm and yell out that he was on his way to join his late wife, Elizabeth. It was funny when he did it. It wasn't funny when Justice did his own version, suddenly complaining of chest pains the morning after he was found guilty. This came after Burnett denied Justice's motion for a mistrial.
It was obviously a stunt, but Judge Jay Burnett had no choice but to stop the proceedings and send Justice to the clinic for an evaluation. After doctors cleared him, Harris County Sheriff's deputies returned him to his cell, instead of to court. Ultimately, someone from the Harris County Sheriff's Office — apparently a graduate of the Brent Justice School of Law — claimed that the results of Justice's examination could not be entered into evidence unless Justice waived his confidentiality rights under HIPAA. Burnett had no choice but to convene for the day while he drew up a subpoena. For this act alone, Justice should have been charged with the little-known criminal statute of Capital Douchery.
Perhaps the most preposterous — not to mention offensive — of Justice's claims was that the puppy mutilated in the video in question was slaughtered using kosher methods. To rebut this claim, prosecutors presented Rabbi Mark Urkowitz, one of the heads of the Houston Kashruth Association, which certifies retail and commercial establishments as kosher. A Brooklyn native in a yarmelka, Urkowitz was seemingly called in from central casting. He explained that only animals with cloven hooves, who chew their cud, are considered kosher. (This is perhaps why the Torah has shockingly few anecdotes involving pit bulls.)
"Are you familiar with the Hebrew Israelite faith?" Justice asked Urkowitz. Justice had apparently stayed up all night learning random Jewish words, resulting in the non sequitur "Are you familiar with 'Talmudic capacity'?"
"There is no Jewish ritual slaughter of dogs," Urkowitz told Justice.
In what was probably not a necessary display, assisting prosecutor Lisa Porter handed Urkowitz a sealed plastic evidence bag containing the knife used in the video and asked if it was even up to kosher standards. Urkowitz said he couldn't tell by just looking at it, so he was allowed to rip open the bag, take out the knife and run the blade along his cupped hand to feel for nicks. A visibly annoyed Burnett, who probably didn't need to hear testimony from a rabbi that dog-eatin' is not a central tenet of Jewish orthodoxy, called an end to the knife test.
Obviously, Justice's not guilty plea triggered a trial, which meant that the prosecution had to enter the crush video he was charged with into evidence, as well as play it in open court. So, thanks to Justice, people in the courtroom who could have gone through their lives just fine without seeing a single crush video were now exposed to true horror. The video begins with Richards, wearing a mask, feeding a brindle pit puppy out of her hand. It ends with Richard urinating on the dog's headless corpse. The time in-between is excruciating. At one point, Justice's arm enters the frame, placing a knife on the floor in front of Richards.
As the video played, Justice spent the first few minutes sitting at his table, shuffling his papers, writing things down, generally ignoring the proceedings. It was as if it was just white noise. But when Richards started sawing off the dog's head, Justice stopped what he was doing and stared intently. The judge — being a normal person — had to briefly look away when Richards finally severed the head. Justice just gazed at the screen, completely unaware that he was making everyone's life a little shittier. Later, Justice would say of the video he produced, sold and profited from, "Even watching the video myself, I was alarmed."
THEY WALK AMONG US
It should be noted that, while Justice and Richards were convicted for their crimes, their customers weren't. These people are out there, and they are touched in the head.
Richards testified that, on three occasions, clients paid for live sessions — meeting Richards in a hotel room and masturbating while she killed the animals they brought. Justice sat in a car outside.
Because Justice handled all the clients, Richards did not know who ordered the video at the center of the case. All she knew is that they wanted the back legs chopped off," and they wanted a knife. Justice picked out the high heels Richards would wear.
Justice challenged her on cross-examination, asking if she knew the client. Although soft-spoken on the stand, Richards did not conceal her animosity toward Justice.
"I don't know, Mr. Justice," she said. "Only you know that."
Later, he asked why she lied to police about saying a nonexistent woman named Jasmine made the videos with her.
"Because I was trying to protect you, Mr. Justice," she said. "....I thought we were friends, at first."
After the video, Richards buried the puppy's mutilated corpse near a park by the couple's apartment complex. She did this, she said, as a sign of respect.
CONJUNCTION JUNCTION, WHAT'S YOUR FUNCTION?
Whatever intelligence Justice may have displayed at his Faretta hearing was sorely lacking in his arguments to Burnett. At the end of witness testimony, Justice filed a motion for acquittal, based in his (mis)understanding of Texas's animal cruelty law and his indictment.
Justice was indicted for torturing an animal in violation of the state's cruelty laws regarding non-livestock animals. A person can violate that law by torturing, cruelly killing or seriously injuring an animal. Justice apparently did not understand the "or" and thought a person had to be charged with all three forms of cruelty.
"You do realize you're charged with killing this dog," Burnett pointed out, explaining to Justice the meaning of "or."
"That's not what the law says, sir," Justice said.
It gave the impression that Justice is either an idiot or an asshole. Or both.
SOMEBODY CALL THE WAAMBULANCE
In his opening statement, Justice complained to Burnett that "I'm the only person here that's not a lawyer," and that "I'm really just disappointed, your honor...I feel like I'm treated unfair."
He echoed this sentiment after Burnett found him guilty, saying, "I was forced to defend this case against two experienced and seasoned attorneys."
Burnett reminded Justice that he fired all of his lawyers — one of whom, according to Burnett, was Alan Isbell, "probably one of the best lawyers in this county, if not the state."
When Justice raised the issue again after he was found guilty Burnett explained to Justice that he reviewed the records of Justice's Faretta hearing, reminding him that the judge in that hearing had explained the dangers and disadvantages of representing yourself.
"That's what's going on now," Burnett said. Boom.
We'll update when Justice is sentenced.
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