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FBI Documents: DOJ Moved Stagliano Case from Alabama to D.C.

from – Prosecutors who are planning to put one of the leading directors and producers in the porn industry, John Stagliano, on trial for obscenity in a federal court in Washington D.C. this summer originally planned to indict him in Alabama but later filed the case in the nation’s capital, according to FBI documents.

Stagliano and Evil Angel Productions were indicted in D.C. in April 2008 on seven obscenity-related felonies, including distributing obscene movies through the Internet and making an obscene trailer accessible to minors via the Web.

In the past, federal prosecutors have been accused of bringing obscenity cases in socially conservative locales in order to make it easier to find a jury which will convict. However, defense attorneys said they were puzzled by the decision to prosecute Stagliano, a Malibu, Calif. resident, in D.C. after earlier planning to charge him in Alabama.

“They’ve always tried to go into more conservative jurisdictions,” said Louis Sirkin, a defense lawyer preparing for the unusual trial, currently set for July 7. “This is the first time you’re going to have an obscenity case in Washington, D.C. in a long time. There probably hasn’t been one in 30 years.”

A Justice Department spokeswoman, Laura Sweeney, said she could not comment beyond the court filings. However, she noted that from the time the case was indicted it has been in Washington.

The odd Alabama-to-D.C. move was disclosed in defense court filings earlier this month, which included FBI documents handed over during the discovery process.

In April 2007, FBI agents based in Washington wrote:

It has been determined that this case will be prosecuted in the Northern District of Alabama. This U.S. Attorney’s office was selected after discussions were conducted between Department of Justice Trial Attorneys and the U.S. Attorney for this district.

However, in another memo, an FBI agent said a prosecutor advised in September 2007 that the case would be brought in D.C The memos don’t state any clear reason for the switch.

Defense lawyers, who are asking for a change of venue to the Los Angeles area where Stagliano is based, say the selection of D.C. runs counter to DOJ policies which they contend favor bringing obscenity cases in places where individuals have complained about the material at issue or where the defendant does business.

“Significantly, not a single person in the District of Columbia complained about any movies or Internet content allegedly produced or distributed by the defendants. Rather, this investigation and prosecution were commenced wholly on the subjective determination of Justice Department officials that expressive materials…are not protected by the First Amendment,” defense lawyers wrote in an April 9 motion.

The move could have been made to save the government money, since the Adult Obscenity Task Force prosecutors who were planning the case generally live in the D.C. area. However, some observers have also noted that the perceived unwillingness of some U.S. Attorneys to bring obscenity cases played a role in some of the controversial dismissals by the Bush administration in 2006. This might have made filing such a case in Birmingham, Alabama politically problematic, since the office there was already embroiled in controversy over the prosecution of former Gov. Don Siegelman (D-Ala.)

The U.S. Attorney in Birmingham in 2007, Alice Martin, told POLITICO she could not recall any decisions about the Stagliano case, including why it was redirected to D.C.

In the wake of President Barack Obama’s election in 2008, some in the adult-film business expected prosecutions like that of Stagliano would be abandoned and that the unit which brought the case, the Obscenity Prosecution Task Force, would be shuttered. That has not happened, despite a tradition that a Democratic administrations have put more emphasis on child pornography and less on adult pornography.

“With everything that’s going on in the world, they’re taking on the adult industry?” asked Sirkin incredulously. “There is no longer the common problems that once existed with adult bookstores on every corner. It’s a completely different, kind of self-contained home marketplace.”

POLITICO reported last year that soon after Obama took office, Justice Department prosecutors caught up in a legal battle over an obscenity prosecution brought in Montana suddenly reversed course and refiled the case in New Jersey, where the defendant in the case was based. Officials acknowledged that the choice of venue for the initial prosecution violated department guidelines.

That case involved alleged torture pornography. The one against Stagliano relates to movies containing so-called fetish content. During the Bush administration, such material became the focus of obscenity prosecution, even as ordinary hardcore pornography became ubiquitous on the Web.

At a Congressional hearing last week, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) faulted DOJ for focusing on “fringe” content.

“There has been a pattern at the Department of Justice to prosecute only the most extreme obscene materials. Now this particular type of material may virtually guarantee a conviction, but it’s not the most widely produced or consumed and therefore its prosecution may have very little impact on the obscenity industry,” Hatch told Attorney General Eric Holder. “This approach of moving the prosecution line out to the fringe signals that material that is just as obscene though less extreme is let off the hook. And I believe that approach is misguided and contributes to the proliferation of obscenity that harms individuals, families, and communities.”

Holder was noncommittal, but hinted there would be no major change in DOJ policy. “We will certainly enforce the laws using the limited resources that we have and go after those cases that, I think as we always do, have the potential for the greatest harm,” he said.


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