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Obscenity Trial Underway

The outcome of this case could have a lot of bearing on the Rob Black trial which gets under way this year.

Dallas- The obscenity trial of two local men and a business partner on charges of peddling bootleg rape and sexual torture films began Tuesday in federal court, where jurors will have to reach a unanimous definition about what’s obscene and what isn’t for North Texas.

To do that, the panel will have to watch at least three hours of violent, hard-core pornography purchased by undercover agents during their investigation of an Arlington-based business.

Clarence Thomas Gartman and Brent Alan McDowell of Arlington and Lou Anthony Santilena of Henderson, Nev., are accused of conspiring to sell obscene videos over the Internet and then mailing the films to customers across the U.S.

If convicted on all counts, Mr. Gartman and Mr. McDowell face up to 20 years in prison. Mr. Santilena’s charge carries a 10-year maximum prison stint.

Federal prosecutor Linda Groves gave the jury a matter-of-fact outline of an investigation dating back almost six years to the now defunct forbiddenvideos .com.

Ms. Groves promised to show the six men and six women of the jury proof of how the three men profited from the sales of the purported rape and sexual torture films, and how local police and federal authorities watched the Web site’s catalog grow from six films to 90.

Defense attorneys opened their arguments by acknowledging that their clients sold “dirty movies” and mailed them to customers, under the protections of the First Amendment.

“Tom [Gartman] admits to 100 percent of the things laid out in the government’s indictment, except for one thing – the word ‘obscene,’ ” attorney Andrew Chatham said of his client. “The judge gets to tell you what the law is, but you get to decide what the law means.”

At issue for the jury is a three-prong test to defining what’s obscene: Do the videos appeal to prurient interests alone; do they violate contemporary community standards; and do they lack any serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value?

The trial marks only the fifth time in more than 14 years that federal authorities have pressed obscenity charges here against porn distributors selling to adult customers, online or in local bookstores and video arcades.

Tuesday’s case began more than two years after a former Dallas police officer and his wife were convicted in federal court on similar charges – and for selling one of the same videos bought in the investigation against Mr. Gartman and his partners.

Garry and Tamara Ragsdale, convicted by a jury in fall 2003, were former business partners with Mr. Gartman before parting ways and offering their own online catalog of extreme videos in 1998.

During their trial, the couple acknowledged that they sold about $20,000 worth of simulated-rape videos in the two months they operated the business from their Fort Worth home.

Mr. Ragsdale, who was fired from the Dallas Police Department after his 1998 arrest, was sentenced to 33 months in prison in 2004. Ms. Ragsdale was sentenced to 30 months in prison. The couple appealed, but their convictions were upheld in the fall.

According to federal authorities, the 2004 indictment of the three men led to the criminal investigation of the Ragsdales.

Mr. Gartman and Mr. McDowell ran a collection of sites on the Internet, including forbidden videos.com. Mr. Santilena joined the operation in late 2002.

In his opening arguments, Mr. McDowell’s attorney told jurors that the government would play a battery of “disgusting, vulgar, violent videos” sold to thousands of adult customers across the country.

“But you won’t hear any evidence that these videos are obscene,” he said.

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