Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Natural Born Killers

Background

DVD cover: Natural Born Killers
DVD cover: Natural Born
Killers

In the 215 years since the First Amendment to the Bill of Rights was added to the U.S. Constitution guaranteeing, among other things, the right to free speech, it has undergone many test cases. In the mid-1990s, it underwent yet another test when a motion picture, its well-known director, the production company that released it, and a number of other principals were sued by the victim of a "copycat crime" inspired by that particular movie.

The movie was titled Natural Born Killers and its director was Academy Award-winner Oliver Stone. Its release in 1994 inspired a young couple from Oklahoma to set out on what they planned to be a killing spree that left one person dead and another paralyzed from the neck down.

When 18-year-old Benjamin James Darrus and his 18-year-old girlfriend Sarah Edmondson left their rented cabin in Oklahoma on the morning of March 6, 1995, little did they know that their actions would result in a First Amendment test case that went all the way up to the United States Supreme Court. Little did they know, also, that their actions would pit one of Hollywood's top directors against one of the world's bestselling authors in a clash of titans. The only thing on the couple's mind that particular morning was to have fun and mayhem and duplicate the deeds of another couple in a film they watched multiple times.

Seven years after their crimes, through numerous court hearings and appeals, the First Amendment rights of Stone and the other defendants were upheld, but at a heavy price. Despite a preponderance of evidence that young people are influenced to commit violent crimes by what they see in the media, and despite numerous instances of "copycat crimes," the media was basically absolved of blame for the actions of these perpetrators. A dozen deaths and other violent incidents on two continents were linked directly or indirectly to Natural Born Killers, yet the media and video game companies continue to depict violence in such a way as to almost glorify it.

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.
Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.

On the one hand in the case was the right of a film's writers and director to free expression of their creative efforts. On the other hand was the contention of the plaintiffs and their attorneys that freedom has its limitations. In the 1919 case Schenk v. United States, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., the great Supreme Court Justice, delivered a landmark opinion that, while free speech is indeed protected by the Constitution, no one has the right to yell "Fire!" in a crowded theater — or incite others to commit acts of violence.

How this case made its way into the international headlines is a story that began in a small Oklahoma town for two people on hallucinogenic drugs with an obsession for R-rated movies, and it ended in tragedy for two innocent people.

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