Open Season: Do Laws Against Animal Crushing Videos Violate Free Speech?

Update: Federal prosecutors have dropped the remaining two obscenity charges and have filed a notice to appeal the five counts under the Animal Crush Video Prohibition Act Meanwhile, state prosecutors have refiled animal cruelty charges against Richards and Justice, who remain in Harris County Jail. For more information, click here.

Never mind what you see; it's what you hear that gets you first.

A shrill whine from the cat, no doubt frustrated by the fact that its rear paws are duct-taped together. The front paws are also taped but separated; it all keeps the cat in place, right there on clean yellow tiles.

Sitting in a simple wooden chair, clad in black bra, short-shorts, and heels, smoke from her cigarette curling up past the yellow masquerade mask shielding half her face, is Cruel Meshalette. Or, as she's known in the federal indictment, Ashley Nicole Richards. On her necklace is a cross.

An R&B song plays. Richards, 21 years old when this video was shot, flaunts her assets. The person operating the camera quick zooms to Richards's face as she exhales smoke.

"Now look at what we have here," Richards says at about a minute in. "A nice pussy. Nice, nice, nice, nice....are you calm yet?"

Richards lays down a heel on a fold of fur. It's not clear how old the immobilized cat is. Not a kitten, but small all the same. A white body, with a black tail, black rings around its eyes. Black ears. And utterly, completely helpless.

She says: "What am I on? Am I on something? Am I on something? Bitch, am I on something?"

The noises the cat makes sound like part pain, part anger, part fear.

Then, the knife.

It's a type of knife called a kris: Asian in origin, with a wavy blade that, in this instance, looks to be about six inches. Richards now kneels by the cat and runs the blade flat across the cat's side, like she's brushing it. Then she rotates the blade and presses it against the cat's hind quarters, like she's going to cut. The cat goes nuts.

She says: "You sure can squirm."

The cat moves its head back, trying to bite Richards's hand.

"You don't want to go that route," she warns. "Shut the fuck up." She pins the cat's neck to the floor with her knee.

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.

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.

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Contributor Craig Malisow covers crooks, quacks, animal abusers, elected officials, and other assorted people for the Houston Press.
Contact: Craig Malisow