Judge Throws Out Lawsuit Against Oliver Stone
In a key victory for Hollywood, a state court judge in Louisiana on Monday threw out a lawsuit against Oscar-winning director Oliver Stone that claimed his graphically violent 1994 movie “Natural Born Killers” inspired a young couple to go on a two-state crime spree that left a Mississippi man dead and a Louisiana store clerk paralyzed from the neck down.
Judge Bob Morrison of the 21st Judicial District Court in Amite, La., said the U.S. Constitution’s 1st Amendment protected Stone and the movie’s distributor, Warner Bros., and he ruled there was no evidence Stone intended to incite violence.
“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,” Time Warner attorney Walter Dellinger said.
“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.
For years, the entertainment industry has been placed on the defensive by critics who contend that gratuitous violence in movies can spawn copycat crimes in real life. Stone’s movie, a satire on the media’s glorification of violence, became a lightning rod for politicians who criticized it as irresponsible.
The movie stars Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis as Mickey and Mallory, two serial killers who drive across America slaughtering dozens of people for kicks and becoming media stars as a result.
The Motion Picture Assn. of America threatened the film with an NC-17 adults-only rating, but after numerous appeals and some editing, the movie was released with a less restrictive R rating.
Sarah Edmondson, the teenage daughter of an Oklahoma judge, and her boyfriend, Ben Darras, would later tell authorities that they launched their own rampage after repeatedly watching Stone’s film.
Darras murdered a man in Mississippi, for which he is serving a life sentence. The day after that killing, Edmondson was caught on surveillance video firing a bullet into the neck of clerk Patsy Byers during a robbery at the Pontchatoula, La., store where Byers worked in 1995. Edmondson is serving a 35-year sentence for that crime, as is Darras.
Byers has since died of cancer, but her family pursued the lawsuit.
“She was paralyzed from the neck down; therefore, she had no feeling of pain, and before she knew it, the cancer had spread,” said Joe Simpson, the attorney representing Byers’ family.
“I don’t think justice was done to the family, but we have a very good judge and he did make the decision that he thought was proper,” Simpson said, adding that he would appeal the ruling, a process he said could take more than two years.
Simpson noted that during the discovery phase of the suit, he found “numerous” intra-office communications among Stone and his staff showing they “kidded about” the film’s rating, saying, “Maybe this will be an NC-32"-rated film.
“Another one said, ‘Maybe we ought to have a five-year background check before we allow them to see this movie.’ ”
Simpson said that what makes “Natural Born Killers” different from a violent film such as “Thelma and Louise,” for instance, is that in the latter film the two outlaws drove over a cliff and received their punishment, but in Stone’s movie “these people drive off in a motor home with their two little kids. The message to youth is: Crime does pay.”
Though the judge dismissed Stone and Time Warner from the suit, Simpson said, Edmondson, Darras and the insurance company for Edmondson’s parents continue to be sued.