Houston woman convicted of making 'animal crush' fetish videos
A judge's gavel (Shutterstock)

A Houston woman has become the first person convicted in federal court of making and distributing “animal crush” fetish porn videos.

Ashley Richards, 24, pleaded guilty on Tuesday to four counts of producing and one count of distributing the videos between 2010 and 2012. They depict the torture and killing of puppies, kittens and chickens.

Animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (Peta) contacted Houston police in 2012 after being alerted to a film called “Ebony Kill Cat”, described as “a disturbing video depicting extreme and sadistic acts of cruelty to a kitten”, according to court documents.

The animal rights organisation passed on 20 videos showing kittens, mice, a rabbit, a pigeon, fish and crayfish being tortured with instruments including knives, high heels, screwdrivers and pliers.

Two suspects were identified and traced to a residential address on a quiet street in suburban Houston, which appeared to be the location for several videos.

One 13-minute long video appears to show Richards repeatedly hacking at a dog with a meat cleaver in a kitchen, prosecutors said. The dog’s mouth is closed with duct tape. It is decapitated and Richards urinates on its body. In another, she steps on a cat’s eye with the heel of her shoe.

“As she tortured the animals, she engaged in sexually charged dialogue meant to arouse the viewer,” the US justice department said in a statement, adding that in the videos she is “often scantily-clad and wearing a Mardi Gras-type mask”.

The videos were sold via a website. Richards admitted to making them for money and she called the killings “rituals” or “sacrifices”, according to police.

“It goes to show that violent offenders who make animals pay with their lives should expect to pay with their liberty,” said Stephanie Bell, cruelty casework director at Peta. Bell said that the conviction under the recent law was “making history” and that the conduct shown in the videos would also be banned under every US state’s animal cruelty laws.

Creation and distribution of “animal crush” videos is illegal under a federal law which defines them as obscene images that depict “actual conduct in which one or more living non-human mammals, birds, reptiles or amphibians is intentionally crushed, burned, drowned, suffocated, impaled, or otherwise subjected to serious bodily injury”. The US Justice Department said that this is the first known federal indictment since the statute was amended in 2010.

The law was modified in response to a 2010 US supreme court ruling that struck down a 1999 federal law designed to ban images of animal cruelty, such as dogfighting footage, on the basis that it was too broad and violated constitutional free speech rights.

In 2013 a district judge dismissed five federal charges against Richards and a friend, Brent Justice, citing first amendment concerns. The charges were reinstated on appeal. Justice, 54, is awaiting trial.

The charges carry a maximum penalty of seven years’ imprisonment and a fine of up to $250,000. Sentencing is scheduled for 10 December. Richards pleaded guilty to related charges in state court in 2014 and was sentenced to 10 years in prison.

Jon Lovvorn, chief counsel at the Humane Society of the United States, said the conviction was “important because we’ve been on a several-year odyssey to get to an enforceable, constitutional, federal crush law”.

He said it is important to have a federal law in addition to state-level enforcement because the internet means the videos may be distributed thousands of miles away from where they are produced.

When the Humane Society conducted its own investigation into crush videos several years ago, Lovvorn said, they found a “vibrant and shocking marketplace for this material”, but it is hard to say how widespread the production and distribution of the videos is because of their underground nature. However, he said, US internet service providers have made strides in stopping the material from being hosted online.

Last May a bipartisan bill, the Preventing Animal Cruelty and Torture Act, was introduced into Congress. It proposes to boost the 2010 law by making the abuse itself, not only the filming and distribution of it, a federal crime.

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2015