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Appellate Court Reverses "Crush" Video Decision

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A federal appeals court has reversed a lower court's decision that a law banning the production and sale of animal "crush" videos is unconstitutional, allowing prosecutors to refile charges against a Houston duo accused of recording the torturing of dogs and cats.

The decision revives the federal case against Ashley Nicole Richards and Brent Wayne Justice, believed to be the first defendants charged under a 2010 federal statute banning crush videos. But U.S. District Court Judge Sim Lake dismissed those charges in 2013, ruling that the statute was overbroad and that the content of the videos was not legally obscene. Under the statute, Richards and Justice had each faced up to 50 years in prison.

In the ruling issued Friday, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals found that the Animal Crush Video Prohibition Act is "narrow and tailored to target unprotected speech that requires the wanton torture and killing of animals."

In the videos, which Justice allegedly recorded, Richards slowly and methodically uses knives and other tools to slowly mutilate and kill animals. In a video excerpt viewed by the Houston Press, -- which only include the prelude to actual cutting -- Richards, clad in black bra, short-shorts, and heels, talks in a domineering tone and brushes the flat side of a knife blade against a cat whose paws have been duct-taped.

An animal cruelty investigator with the Houston Police Department testified in a 2012 detention hearing to the contents of another video, which showed Richards burning a dog with a cigarette, taping its mouth shut, binding its paws with rope, and hacking the dog with a meat cleaver -- ultimately beheading it -- and then urinating on the corpse.

In addressing the defendants' arguments that the Act unconstitutionally targeted the content of speech, Judge Stephen Higginson wrote that "the plain language and the history and revisions of [the Act] suggest there is no realistic possibility that official suppression of ideas is afoot."

Hair Balls appreciates Higginson's dash of cheekiness: "Even assuming, for the sake of argument, that the creators and distributors of animal crush videos, like Richards and Justice, intend to advance a distinct message, perhaps about barbarism, [the Act] is justified with reference not to the content of such a message but rather to its secondary effects -- wanton torture and killing that, as demonstrated by federal and state animal-cruelty laws, society has deemed worthy of criminal sanction."

Higginson also wrote that the Court agreed with the legislative intent behind the Act: "Congress found that the clandestine manner in which animal crush videos are made makes it difficult for states to enforce laws that criminalize the underlying conduct. We conclude similarly that Congress has a significant interest in preventing the secondary effects of animal crush videos, which promote and require violence and criminal activity."

The Harris County District Attorney's Office had also charged Richards and Justice with animal cruelty, enhanced from a misdemeanor to a felony because of the use of a deadly weapon. Richards pleaded guilty to three counts and was sentenced in May 2014 to ten years in prison. Two additional counts are pending. (Prosecutors sought to have the sentences run consecutively, which would have made it 30 years).

Justice pleaded not guilty to one count and is facing trial later this year.Richards is expected to testify against him. (Both Richards and Justice remain in Harris County Jail, in lieu of bond).

This has been quite a saga, and we're sure to have more soon.

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