Nearly four years after he was charged with animal cruelty in connection with filming "crush" videos, Brent Justice's trial kicked off Monday with Justice arguing....well, we're not exactly sure.
Representing himself, the 54-year-old Justice failed to suppress a 2012 police interrogation video in which he admitted to filming a scantily clad 20-year-old woman slowly hacking apart a pitbull puppy, ending in the woman urinating on the dog's beheaded corpse. Authorities say Justice recorded the event for sale and distribution, and can be seen handing a knife to the woman, Ashley Richards.
Richards previously pleaded guilty to three counts of animal cruelty and is expected to testify against Justice. Richards also pleaded guilty in 2015 to federal charges of violating a 2010 statute prohibiting crush videos — she and Justice are the first people charged under the new law. The charges against both were dismissed in 2013 after a Houston federal judge found the law unconstitutional, but the Fifth Circuit overturned the ruling. Justice's federal charges are pending. (Justice has remained in Harris County Jail, in lieu of $50,000 bond).
In the interrogation video played for Harris County District Court Judge Jay Burnett, Justice first denied any participation in the video, but relented after a police officer pointed out that a birthmark on Justice's right arm can be seen in the video. He told officers that he "had no choice" but to participate, or else Richards would have kicked him out of the couple's apartment.
In questioning witness Chris Fontes, a PETA animal cruelty investigator, Justice seemed to stick with the arguments presented in his rambling pre-trial motions — namely, that methodically torturing and killing a non-livestock animal for the sexual gratification of paying customers is not animal cruelty. (Channeling his inner rabbi, Justice previously claimed that the puppy, whose mouth was duct-taped while Richards stubbed her cigarettes on its body, was killed using kosher methods. His most recent filing claims that the video somehow shows activities related to legal animal husbandry.)
Justice asked Fontes a series of questions that prosecutor Jessica Milligan objected to as irrelevant — which the judge sustained — including whether he ate meat, and how many lobbyists worked on behalf of PETA.
Suzanne Hollified, the Houston Police Department's animal cruelty investigator who led the case against the couple, testified that Richards consented to a search of a home the couple rented on Locke Lane in August 2012, and that Richards said she was relieved that things appeared to be over. The officer also said that the couple's videos sold for $400-$500, and that the animals used were often provided by customers.
The search of the home, which did not have electricity, yielded a headless hammer, a knife, a sheetrock saw crusted with fur, and a can of salt that Richards used to dump on animals' wounds, Hollifield testified. A wall also contained blood spatter that laboratory testing identified as canine and feline.
Justice turned down an offer of a 50-year sentence by Milligan, who told the judge she plans to enter enhancement evidence of prior felonies if Justice is found guilty, meaning he could face more than 99 years.
The prosecutor also touched on Richards's background, saying she ran away from a "crackhead" prostitute mother at age 13 after enduring years of sexual abuse from men who came to the home. She lived for a year with a grandmother, but was subject to more abuse, and ran away again, eventually turning to prostitution to survive, Milligan said. After she met Justice, she agreed to go along with his crush video plans because it was safer — and more profitable — than turning tricks, the prosecutor said.
"His hands are as bloody as hers," Milligan said of Justice.
Testimony continues Tuesday.
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