Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Woman sentenced to 10 years for animal snuff porn

Still from a video allegedly depicting a masked Ashley Nicole Richards binding a cat with tape. Source: Houston Press/Animal Beta Project.

Does watching a high-heeled woman stomp the life out of a kitten float your boat? Probably not. But there exists a subculture of humanity that scours the internet for so-called “crush videos.”

Crush fetishists get their jollies watching things get smashed – and a quasi-pornographic industry has sprung up to cater to them. Perhaps the most famous such film, “Smush” by Jeff Vilencia was shown at various film festivals across the US. “Smush” depicts in close-up a woman playing footsie with, and then destroying, dozens of live earthworms. The use of small insects in this proclivity is known as “soft crush.” ”Hard crush” refers to a more insidious type of crush film: the graphic killing of bunnies, puppies, kittens, birds and mice in what is essentially an animal snuff film.

Not surprisingly, the practice has its detractors. Stopcrush.org is an international online community that is working to outlaw crush videos throughout North America, Europe and Asia. Stopcrush.org posits that “there is nothing social redeeming” about torturing animals – and that animal abuse is all too often a first step toward serial killing.

The legality of crush films in the United States is a matter of debate. In 1999, Congress passed a law banning the sale and marketing of videos depicting “conduct in which a living animal is intentionally maimed, mutilated, tortured, wounded or killed.”

But in April 2010, the Supreme Court struck down the law by an 8-1 margin, citing First Amendment concerns. In the court’s estimation, the 1999 law was overbroad as it outlawed hunting videos along with the more unseemly films. Chief Justice John Roberts wrote “The demand for hunting depictions exceeds the estimated demand for crush videos or animal fighting depictions by several orders of magnitude.”

However, the Supreme Court left the door wide open for Congress to pass a bill directly aimed at crush videos – and Congress proved up to the task. Later that year, President Obama signed the Animal Crush Video Prohibition Act, which mandated up to seven years in prison for the creation, sale, and marketing of crush videos. “We are thankful that countless animals will now be spared from intentional torture for sick entertainment and profit,” the Humane Society’s Wayne Pacelle said at the time.

Ashley Nicole Richards and Brent Wayne Justice. Police photos.

But the controversy has not ended there. Last year, Ashley Nicole Richards and Brent Justice of Houston were arrested and charged in Federal Court with seven counts of violating the animal crush video statute. The couple were the first to be charged under the 2010 law. They stood accused of producing eight videos of shockingly graphic imagery in their home: Richards slashing a cat’s throat and then stomping its eye with her high-heel, and Justice hacking a pit bull pup’s neck with a meat cleaver before slicing off its tail and leg.

At one point Richards and Justice faced up to 45 years in prison on the charges, but last month the Federal charges were dismissed thanks to a ruling in U.S. District Court. Judge Sim Lake ruled that while the new law argued that crush videos are “obscene” he disagreed with Congress, concluding that obscene speech must be of a sexual nature. “Animal crush videos may be obscene in the vernacular sense of the word,” Lake wrote that animal cruelty is not included in the “traditional well-established definitions of obscenity.”

The US attorney’s office of Southern Texas is considering its options in the aftermath of Lake’s opinion, but animal rights activists believe the ruling should be challenged in a higher court. “The new crush law was drafted specifically to protect animals from this type of heinous cruelty without violating free speech rights,” said spokesperson Stephanie Bell of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. “And we believe that Congress and President Obama got it right.”

While the legality of the animal crush video law is debated in the Federal system, Richards and Justice face a more immediate problem: they have been indicted for felony animal cruelty in state court. If convicted, they face up to two years in a Texas jail.

Originally published May 31, 2013

More: 

From the Houston Press: Do Laws Against Animal Crushing Videos Violate Free Speech?

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