LOS ANGELES — The jurors have been warned. Eight men and six women will watch hours of videos depicting extreme fetishes after opening arguments today in the obscenity trial of self-professed "shock artist" Ira Isaacs.
Federal prosecutors think they can prove his movies violate community obscenity standards, even in the nation's reputed pornography capital.
Isaacs readily admits he produced and sold films depicting bestiality and sexual activity involving feces and urine. The judge told potential jurors that the hours of fetish videos included violence against women, and many of them said they didn't want to serve because watching would make them sick to their stomachs.
"It's the most extreme material that's ever been put on trial. I don't know of anything more disgusting," said Roger Jon Diamond — Isaacs' own defense attorney.
The case is the most visible effort of a new federal task force designed to crack down on smut in America. Isaacs, however, says his work is an extreme but constitutionally protected form of art.
"There's no question the stuff is disgusting," said Diamond, who has spent much of his career representing pornographers. "The question is should we throw people in jail for it?"
Isaacs, 57, a Los Angeles advertising-agency owner who says he used to market fine art in commercial projects, says he went into distributing and producing films about fetishes because "I wanted to do something extreme."
"I'm fighting for art," he said in an interview before his federal trial got under way. "Art is on trial." He plans to testify as his own expert witness and said he will cite the historic battles over obscenity involving authors James Joyce and D.H. Lawrence. One of his exhibits, he said, will be a picture of famed artist Marcel Duchamp's "Fountain," a porcelain urinal signed by the artist in 1917.
Diamond said Isaacs also would tell jurors the works have therapeutic value for people with the same fetishes depicted on screen. "They don't feel so isolated," Diamond said. "They have fetishes that other people have."
Isaacs makes a brief appearance in one of the videos he produced; others that he distributed were imported from other countries.
The business has been lucrative. At one point, he has said, he was selling 1,000 videos a month at $30 apiece. Then his office was raided by FBI agents who bought his videos online with undercover credit cards.
The government obtained an indictment against Isaacs on a variety of obscenity charges, including importation or transportation of obscene material for sale. Prosecutors have refused to comment about the case.
Jean Rosenbluth, a former federal prosecutor and law professor at University of Southern California, said such prosecutions were rare until the creation of the U.S. Department of Justice Obscenity Prosecution Task Force. Child pornography cases are handled by a separate unit.
"The problem with obscenity is no one really knows what it is," she said. "It's relatively simple to paint something as an artistic effort even if it's offensive."
The test of obscenity still hinges on a 1973 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Miller v. California, which held that a work is not legally obscene if it has "literary, artistic, political or scientific value."
Jurors also are asked to determine whether the material in question violates standards of what is acceptable to the community at large.
"This task force was quite controversial and many in the Department of Justice felt that it was a waste of resources," Rosenbluth said. "Because of the pressure, they seem to have chosen the worst cases they can find to prosecute."
Each of the four counts against Isaacs carries a five-year maximum prison sentence. Prosecutors also are seeking forfeiture of assets obtained through his video sales. Two of the original six counts were dropped.
"A lot of this is about sending a message — 'Don't make this stuff. Don't put it on the Internet. We don't want it here,'" Rosenbluth said. She said prosecutors would be emboldened to pursue similar cases if Isaacs were convicted, though there would be lengthy challenges on appeal.
In an unusual twist, the trial is being presided over by the chief judge of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, Alex Kozinski, under a program that allows appellate judges occasionally to handle criminal trials at the district court level. Kozinski is known as a strong defender of free speech and First Amendment rights.
When jury selection began June 9, Kozinski urged prospects to be open about their opinions and incurred an onslaught of negative statements. Within the first hour, he had dismissed 26 men and women who said they could not be fair to the defendant because they were repulsed by the subject matter. By day's end, half the panel of 100 had been excused.
"I think watching something like that would make me physically ill, nauseous," said one woman. "It's affecting me physically now just thinking about it."
Several prospects marched up to the judge's bench for private conferences when he told them that the films also involved violence against women. They, too, were excused, as were several who cited their religious beliefs.
Asked how long they would have to watch the movies, Kozinski told them it would be about five hours and "I will be there watching with you. This is part of the job we're doing."