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Incitement lawsuit against Stone, “Natural Born Killers” dismissed

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From the Spring 2001 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 22.

From the Spring 2001 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 22.

A Louisiana trial judge has dismissed a wrongful death lawsuit brought against the makers of the movie “Natural Born Killers.”

District Judge Robert H. Morrison of of the 21st Judicial District Court in Amite, La., ruled that the plaintiffs had no proof that Oliver Stone, who directed and co-wrote the movie, or Warner Bros., which distributed it, intended to incite violence.

The judge granted the producers’ motion for summary judgement, meaning they were entitled to a decision as a matter of law because there were no facts to determine at trial.

The lawsuit began as the result of a shooting of a convenience store clerk. Patsy Byers, who was shot by Sarah Edmondson and Benjamin Darrus during a robbery, sued her assailants, Edmondson’s parents, several insurers, the companies that produced the film and its director. Byers claimed her attackers had been inspired by Stone’s movie, and that the filmmakers should have known that such crimes would result from the distribution of a movie “treating individuals who commit such violence as celebrities and heroes.”

In the 1994 movie, characters played by actors Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis drive across the Southwest, slaughtering people and gathering media fame. Stone claimed that the movie was a satire on violence and the media in America. But some criticized the movie for not punishing the characters in the end for their crimes and allowing them to live “happily ever after.”

Edmondson and Darras are serving 35-year sentences for shooting Byers, who has since died of cancer. Darras also is serving a life sentence for another murder from the same crime spree.

Morrison ruled that watching the movie did not incite the Edmondson and Darras to commit acts of violence. The shooting of Byers happened “three days, five states and 500 miles away” from where Edmondson and Darras watched the film, said Walter Dellinger, who represented Time Warner.

Morrison also rejected the plaintiffs’ claims that the movie was not protected by the First Amendment because it was obscene.

“I think this will . . . set a major example that will discourage looking for some news program or documentary or film every time there is a tragic shooting and try to find someone responsible other than the perpetrator of the violent act,” Dellinger told the Los Angeles Times after Morrison’s ruling.

“This ruling is important not only for filmmakers but for people who make documentaries and news programs, because they could also be attacked for depicting violence that some people will allege was suggested to them,” Dellinger added.

The Byers’ family attorney, Rick Caballero, did not return calls seeking comment on the case.

Morrison originally dismissed the lawsuit, but a Louisiana appellate court reinstated the case in 1998. The Louisiana Supreme Court declined to hear Stone and Warner Brothers’ appeal, as did the U.S. Supreme Court in March 1999. Two years of discovery, including the deposition of Stone, ensued before the case was dismissed. –DB

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