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Appeals court tosses suit blaming movie for killing spree

By The Associated Press


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NEW ORLEANS — The movie Natural Born Killers cannot be blamed for causing a deadly crime spree by two 18-year-olds, a state appeals court says.

On June 5, the 1st Circuit Court of Appeal in Baton Rouge upheld a district judge's decision to throw out Patsy Byers' lawsuit against filmmaker Oliver Stone, Time Warner Entertainment and others associated with the movie.

"At a time when our freedoms seem uncertain on every front, it gives me great hope that the courts validated 100 percent the true meaning of our First Amendment," Stone said yesterday, in a statement relayed by his attorney.

One of the Byers' attorneys, Joe Simpson, said he was not surprised by the ruling. However, he said he expects the case to be appealed to the Louisiana Supreme Court and into federal court.

The suit contends that the movie inspired Sarah Edmondson, an Oklahoma judge's daughter, and her boyfriend, Benjamin Darras, to go on a two-state crime spree in 1995. Darras murdered a man in Mississippi the day before Edmondson shot Byers at a Ponchatoula convenience store.

Byers was paralyzed. She died of cancer in 1997, but her family and estate kept the lawsuit going.

Stone's attorney, David E. Wood of Los Angeles, called the ruling "absolutely marvelous and well-reasoned."

"It reflects what the ideals of the First Amendment are all about," he said. "Artists can't create in an environment where they're living under the threat of lawsuits if they cross a line. That's what's known as a chilling effect."

Edmondson said she and Darras left a cabin in Welling, Okla., for a Grateful Dead concert in Memphis. But, partly because of LSD and several viewings of Natural Born Killers, they wound up on a crime spree, she said.

"The movie did have a numbing influence concerning the effects of violence and a desire to experience it. The shooting did not take place as much from a need for money as from a desire to experience the power of violence," she said in an affidavit used as evidence in this case.

She is serving 35 years for the shooting, and Darras is serving life for a murder in Mississippi.

"Edmondson's and [Darras'] decision to imitate the characters of a film is more a regrettable commentary on their own culpability, than a danger of free expression requiring courts to chill such speech through civil penalties," said the ruling by Chief Judge Burrell J. Carter.

He was joined by Judge Randolph H. Parro and Judge Pro Tempore Ian W. Claiborne.

Byers contended that Stone and other defendants had created a movie which incited people to violence. In addition, she said, film violence was as obscene as pornography and also should be illegal.

The movie's techniques, including switches from color to black-and-white and to video, distortions, laugh tracks, cartoon clips, slow motion and oblique camera angles, "place this film in the realm of fantasy," the judges said.

Some people might say it glorifies and glamorizes violence, but it does not order or suggest that viewers join in, or promote crime "in concrete, non-abstract terms," they wrote.

The ruling also said that the Louisiana Supreme Court has ruled that the First Amendment "does not permit a violence-based notion of obscenity."

Simpson said he agreed with the cases Carter cited and with his conclusion. "I made up my mind some time back that the case is not winnable," Simpson said.

However, he said, co-counsel Rick Caballero "never quits. I look to him to say we're going to the Louisiana Supreme Court and eventually to the Supreme Court of the United States."


Louisiana court hears appeal in 'Natural Born Killers' case
Judges to consider whether filmmakers should share blame for couple's crime spree.  04.12.02


Landmark decision brought freedom to films
By Ken Paulson Until 1952, nation's courts viewed movie industry as just another business, fully subject to government regulation.  06.16.02