U.S. District Judge Sim Lake, in an opinion this week, tossed out charges against a Houston, Texas couple who were accused of violating the federal "animal crush video" statute. The judge ruled that torturing animals and filming their painful deaths is an activity that is protected under the U.S. Constitution.

Investigators seized multiple videos made by Ashley Nicole Richards, 22, and Brent Justice, 51, of various animals being tortured, according to prosecutors.

Brent Justice, 51, and Ashley Nicole Richards, 22, were accused of filming the torture and killing of various animals.

Ashley Nicole Richards, 22, and Brent Justice, 51, were accused of filming the torture and killing of various animals.

The two made at least eight videos of puppies, chickens and kittens being tortured and killed. They faced five charges on "animal crush" and two counts of obscenity. The two could have faced a sentence of up to 45 years in prison.

They were already facing state animal cruelty chares. Both were in the Harris County Jail back in August 2012. Richards' bail was set for $290,000 and Justice's was set at $15,000.

The Houston Chronicle reported back in August:

Prosecutors in court in August said that throughout 2010 Richards received emails from clients who offered to pay her to provide so-called "crush" videos of tortured animals for their sexual gratification.

In one of the videotapes, Richards can be seen torturing a pit bull puppy, according to a criminal complaint filed Aug. 16 in the case. She allegedly bound the puppy's mouth with tape and cut its back leg with a meat cleaver. She then cut the back of the dog's neck and used a different knife to cut the underside of its neck, prosecutors said.

The dog was bleeding and struggling when Richards used the meat cleaver to sever its head from the body, a prosecutor told a magistrate during the probable cause hearing, prompting the judge to stop further reading of details in the case.

"In the back of my mind, I've heard that something like this existed, but I never dreamed that my city would be where this horrible abuse would be taking place," Houston Humane Society spokeswoman Monica Schmidt said. "I think this takes animal cruelty to a whole different level of what we're used to seeing in Houston."

But wait, there's more. Richards is apparently a very bad girl. The Houston Press reports on her involvement in assaulting police officers in Waco, Texas.

According to KWTX, a crowd of 400 people hurled rocks, bricks, chunks of concrete and high-powered fireworks at police. "The type of explosives being thrown were not your typical small firecrackers, but large aerial-type ordnance that explode with a very large flash and flame," said Waco police Sgt. W. Patrick Swanton.

The downtown riverfront battle reportedly lasted 90 minutes and took both tear gas and an armored vehicle to disperse. (Post-fireworks street disturbances seem to be a Waco tradition. A similar rock- and firework-throwing fracas occurred at the same spot back in 2009. Before it was quelled with police tear-gas and smoke-bombs, a building was gutted by fire and several grass fires smoldered downtown on the east side of the city. "We were trying to have a good time over this way but the police came, the fire [happened] and everybody just cleared out and left," a local business owner told KXXV at the time.)

In this year's incident, a female officer was punched in the face and a second cop was hit in the neck with a rock and suffered minor injuries. Richards was arrested in connection with the cop-punching -- some accounts say that her arrest touched off the melee. Everybody else got away, at least in the immediate aftermath.

Richards, who is also known as "Babygirl," was charged with assault on a peace officer and resisting arrest and bonded out the next day. The disposition of that case is unknown at press time.

Judge Lake wrote the statute could prohibit activities that did not qualify as animal cruelty — such as a depiction of "the humane slaughter of a stolen cow."

Lake let the obscenity charges stand. 

In his opinion, Judge Lake wrote that the acts in the video were "disturbing and horrid." However, the federal animal crush video statute could not withstand "strict scrutiny and therefore abridges the freedom of speech protected by the First Amendment."

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) said that they would be appealing the judge's ruling.

I'm not one to side with PETA, but I will on this. I don't see how animal snuff films should be protected under the First Amendment, but along the same line, this should be handled by the State of Texas and not the Federal government.

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