Fetish filmmaker convicted of obscenity charges

Five years after he was first indicted and after two prosecutions ended in mistrials, a Los Angeles-based maker and distributor of niche fetish films was convicted Friday of federal obscenity charges.

Ira Isaacs, who produced, sold and sometimes acted in films depicting scatology and bestiality, was convicted on five counts of selling and distributing obscene material, based on films he sold through a site he advertised as “the Web’s largest fetish VHS, DVD superstore.”

The seven-woman, five-man jury deliberated for less than two hours Friday after a weeklong trial, the bulk of which was made up of the screening of four films, two of them Isaacs’ own creations. Jurors ranged in age from 27 to 64, and included a truck driver, architect, mental health therapist and teacher.

Isaacs’ first trial in 2008 was halted after the judge recused himself, after the Times revealed that his personal website contained some sexually explicit material. His second trial earlier this year ended in a mistrial after jurors deadlocked, 10 to 2 in favor of conviction.

Isaacs, 60, took the stand in his own defense this week, claiming his intent was to create “shock art” inspired by authors and artists including Franz Kafka and Marcel Duchamp. After creating artwork for coupon mailers, he turned to fetish film because he wanted a subject matter that could set him apart, he testified.

“I’m an artist and my stuff is art because I say it is,” he said. “Art is what artists do.”

Before his testimony, the filmmaker was sternly admonished by U.S. District Judge George H. King not to launch into a lecture about the history and definition of art. In a previous ruling, King refused to allow Isaacs to testify as an expert on the topic.

“We can save a lot of time if we’re not taking art lesson 101 from Professor Isaacs,” the judge said outside the jury’s presence.

Under the legal definition of obscenity, the material in question must have no serious artistic, scientific, literary or political value, in addition to appealing to prurient interests and being offensive by community standards.

In cross-examination, prosecutor Damon King noted that Isaacs’ websites contain no mention of “art” or “artistic.” King also asked Isaacs to acknowledge some of the acts he performed in one of his films, “Hollywood Scat Amateurs #7,” in which he is holding the camera and giving commands to a female performer.

King also pressed Isaacs on whether he told a former employee, who testified at the trial, that, “There are a lot of sick people out there ... it’s all about making money from sick people.” Isaacs denied making such statements.

In closing arguments Friday, King told jurors that Isaacs’ artistic claims were “obviously simply a desperate attempt by the defendant to avoid being held accountable under the law.”

Isaacs’ attorney, Roger Diamond, accused prosecutors of trying to inflame emotions against Isaacs, and told jurors that at its crux, the case was about freedom of speech.

“This transcends the movies that you saw, this case is about the Constitution of the United States,” he said. “The question here is whether or not the 1st Amendment means anything.”

Diamond cast Isaacs’ prosecution, which was initiated under a Bush administration task force on obscenity and tried by attorneys flown in from Washington D.C., as an attack on Southern California’s liberal and progressive leanings.

“We’re dealing in this case with a kind of culture war,” he said.

Isaacs, who remains free on bail before his Aug. 6 sentencing, said he was disappointed by the jury’s decision.

A Department of Justice spokeswoman said the government is pleased with the verdict, and that it intends on seizing master copies of the films in question and the video-duplicating equipment used in distribution.

Each count carries a maximum of five years in prison.