Los Angeles obscenity case nauseates some potential jurors
By LINDA DEUTSCH (AP Special Correspondent)
From Associated Press
June 10, 2008 7:46 PM EST
LOS ANGELES - What violates community
obscenity standards in the nation's reputed pornography capital?
Federal prosecutors think they have a case.
Ira Isaacs readily admits he produced
and sold movies depicting bestiality and sexual activity involving
feces and urine. The judge warned potential jurors that the hours of
fetish videos included violence against women, and many of them said
they don't want to serve because watching would make them sick to their
"It's the most extreme material that's
ever been put on trial. I don't know of anything more disgusting," said
Roger Jon Diamond - Isaacs' own defense attorney.
The case is the most visible effort of
a new federal task force designed to crack down on smut in America.
Isaacs, however, says his work is an extreme but constitutionally
protected form of art.
"There's no question the stuff is
disgusting," said Diamond, who has spent much of his career
representing pornographers. "The question is should we throw people in
jail for it?"
Isaacs, 57, a Los Angeles advertising
agency owner who says he used to market fine art in commercial
projects, calls himself a "shock artist" and says he went into
distributing and producing films about fetishes because "I wanted to do
"I'm fighting for art," he said in an interview before his federal trial got under way. "Art is on trial."
He plans to testify as his own expert
witness and said he will cite the historic battles over obscenity
involving authors James Joyce and D.H. Lawrence.
One of his exhibits, he said, will be
a picture of famed artist Marcel Duchamp's "Fountain," a porcelain
urinal signed by the artist in 1917.
Diamond said Isaacs also will tell jurors the works have therapeutic value for people with the same fetishes depicted on screen.
"They don't feel so isolated," Diamond said. "They have fetishes that other people have."
Isaacs makes a brief appearance in one of the videos he produced; others that he distributed were imported from other countries.
The business has been lucrative. At
one point, he has said, he was selling 1,000 videos a month at $30
apiece. Then his office was raided by FBI agents who bought his videos
online with undercover credit cards.
The government obtained an indictment
against Isaacs on a variety of obscenity charges, including importation
or transportation of obscene material for sale. Prosecutors have
declined to comment about the case.
Jean Rosenbluth, a former federal
prosecutor and law professor at University of Southern California, said
such prosecutions were rare until the creation of the U.S. Department
of Justice Obscenity Prosecution Task Force. Child pornography cases
are handled by a separate unit.
"The problem with obscenity is no one
really knows what it is," she said. "It's relatively simple to paint
something as an artistic effort even if it's offensive."
The test of obscenity still hinges on
a 1973 U.S. Supreme Court ruling which held that a work is not legally
obscene if it has "literary, artistic, political or scientific value."
Jurors also are asked to determine
whether the material in question violates standards of what is
acceptable to the community at large.
"This task force was quite
controversial and many in the Department of Justice felt that it was a
waste of resources," Rosenbluth said. "Because of the pressure, they
seem to have chosen the worst cases they can find to prosecute."
Each of the four counts against Isaacs
carries a five-year maximum prison sentence. Prosecutors also are
seeking forfeiture of assets obtained through his video sales. Two of
the original six counts were dropped.
"A lot of this is about sending a
message - `Don't make this stuff. Don't put it on the Internet. We
don't want it here,'" Rosenbluth said.
Rosenbluth said prosecutors would be
emboldened to pursue similar cases if Isaacs is convicted, though there
would be lengthy challenges on appeal.
In an unusual twist, the trial is
being presided over by the chief judge of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of
Appeals, Alex Kozinski, under a program that allows appellate judges to
occasionally handle criminal trials at the District Court level.
Kozinski is known as a strong defender of free speech and First
Eight men and six women were chosen
for the jury Tuesday. Two will be designated alternates later. The
panel was to hear opening statements Wednesday before viewing the
When jury selection began Monday, he
urged prospects to be open about their opinions and incurred an
onslaught of negative statements. Within the first hour, he dismissed
26 men and women who said they could not be fair to the defendant
because they were repulsed by the subject matter. By day's end, half
the panel of 100 had been excused.
"I think watching something like that
would make me physically ill, nauseous," said one woman. "It's
affecting me physically now just thinking about it."
One man fired angry comments at the ponytailed Isaacs.
"Hearing stuff about feces made me
sick and the defendant looks like my ex-business partner who did some
of these things. He looks guilty as sin to me," said the man. "It turns
my stomach thinking about it."
Several prospects marched up to the
judge's bench for private conferences when he told them that the films
also involved violence against women. They, too, were excused, as were
several who cited their religious beliefs.
Asked how long they would have to
watch the movies, Kozinski told them it would be about five hours and
"I will be there watching with you. This is part of the job we're
(This version CORRECTS description of Duchamp artwork.)
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