Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Natural Born Killers

Exonerated

On March 12, 2001, the tawdry courtroom saga over Natural Born Killers came to a climax where it began four years earlier: in a summary judgment from the bench by 21st Judicial District Judge Robert Morrison. He ruled that Stone and his co-defendants could not be held liable for the actions of those who saw the movie. Nor was the movie considered to be "obscene" since violence doesn't fall under the definition of obscenity, and is therefore protected by the First Amendment.

In the judge's ruling, he said that the plaintiffs didn't have enough evidence to hold Stone and the others accountable for the violence that may have resulted from the film's viewing. Morrison said several days had elapsed between the viewing of the film by Sarah and Ben and the two shootings which, he felt, would have given them sufficient time to reconsider their actions.

By this time there were more than a dozen "copycat killings" being blamed on the film. Similar lawsuits had been filed in other states but they, too, were thrown out of court.

"This is an important victory for the First Amendment," said Walter Dellinger, an attorney representing Time Warner and Stone. "Artists simply could not do their work if they had to second-guess themselves," and fear that their work could lead to lawsuits and monetary damages.

Byers family attorneys contended that publicity materials for the movie targeted young males around Darrus' age, and they promised to appeal. Rick Caballero expressed a hope that the case could go to the U.S. Supreme Court where a ruling might be made that violence is, indeed, a form of obscenity exempted from First Amendment protection. "We are trying to make video game producers and movie producers act in a more responsible way," Caballero said. "The only way they will listen is to threaten their wallets."

However, despite its noble intentions, the Byers family lawsuit met its final defeat in June 2002 when the Court of Appeal upheld the lower court ruling. Seven years and countless hours spent on legal maneuvers merely left the matter where it had always been: in the hands of the filmmakers and other purveyors of artistic products. The First Amendment had survived yet another challenge but, at what price?

The surviving members of the families of William Savage and Patsy Byers know what that price is. They have paid it.

 

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