One half of a couple charged with torturing and killing animals as part of a "crush video" business is expected to testify against her alleged partner.
Ashley Nicole Richards, 23, has pleaded guilty to three of five counts of animal cruelty and has agreed to testify against Brent Justice, the man who allegedly helped Richards record the mutilation of cats and dogs with a knife, hatchet and other sharp instruments, and selling the videos. No trial date has been set for Justice, 53, who was appointed a new public defender in March. Both Richards and Justice remain in Harris County Jail, in lieu of $50,000 bond each.
Justice's latest public defender, Allen Isbell, said he could not comment on his client's case because he hasn't yet had time to familiarize himself. But court records show that Justice is taking an active role in his own defense, having asked for and received additional time each week to visit the law library.
Read previous coverage:Open Season: Do Laws Against Animal Crushing Videos Violate Free Speech?
Richards and Justice gained notoriety when they became the first defendants charged under a 2010 federal statute criminalizing the production and sale of crush videos. U.S. District Court Judge Sim Lake tossed those charges in April 2013, calling the statute over broad and unconstitutional.
Federal prosecutors immediately filed an appeal, and a ruling is pending.
Richards, who pleaded guilty in November 2013 to felony animal cruelty charges, is described as "a potential witness" against Justice in a February 2014 motion that warns jailers that Justice was writing to Richards under both his jail identification number, as well as others. (Richards will be sentenced sometime after a May 22 hearing on her pre-sentence investigation report).
"Written, verbal, and visual communication between the two inmates should be avoided" for the sake of "witnesses' safety, and to prevent any intimidation of said witnesses," according to the motion.
Prosecutor Jessica Milligan said her office is seeking the maximum sentence -- 10 years -- for each count against Richards. Milligan says prosecutors asking for "stacked" counts, meaning Richards could theoretically spend 50 years in prison.
Richards' public defender, Scott Pope, did not respond to a request for comment.
Both Richards and Justice are charged with felony cruelty to non-livestock animals, which carries a punishment of 180 days-2 years, and a fine up to $10,000. However, prosecutors also added a "deadly weapon" enhancement to the charges, which carries a sentence of 2-10 years. (Although the Houston Press has only seen portions of videos where Justice was off-screen, Justice's indictment states that Justice himself cut a dog's neck with a knife.)
Keep the Houston Press Free... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Houston with no paywalls.