Accused of violating federal obscenity laws, pornography producer Robert D. Zicari could have quietly pulled his company's films depicting fictional rapes and murders off the market. Instead, he announced that the videotapes targeted by authorities - which he nicknamed "The Federal Five" - were for sale at a discount online.
Zicari's case, which gets under way today in Pittsburgh, is among the first being tackled by the Justice Department in a renewed fight against pornography. Prosecutors all but abandoned such cases in the 1990s. Today they face a much-changed landscape, where the adult entertainment industry is a $10 billion business that is increasingly accepted as part of mainstream culture.
"It is hard to make a case against porn and say, `This is so bad, this is where we need to draw the line,' because we just have a hard time as Americans saying, `This is where to draw that line,'" said Dan Panetti, vice president for legal and public policy issues for the National Coalition for the Protection of Children and Families.
Annual rentals and sales of adult videos and DVDs grew from $1.6 billion in 1992 to more than $4 billion in 2002, according to the trade magazine Adult Video News. In California's gubernatorial recall race, notorious pornographer Larry Flynt is a candidate for the office, as is adult film actress Mary Carey. On the cable television channel Showtime, the reality program Family Business recounts the daily life of a porn executive.
Panetti's Cincinnati-based group supports the government's renewed crackdown on adult obscenity. But the industry is so pervasive that Panetti said his group has abandoned calling itself "anti-porn," choosing instead to be "pro-decency." Still, anti-porn activists have not surrendered, he said.
"It sort of works both ways," said Panetti, whose Cincinnati-based group supports the government's renewed crackdown on adult obscenity. "Because it's so prevalent, people become immune to it - or, because it's so prevalent, people really become offended by it."
In a number of test cases across the country, the government is preparing to find out which it is.
Federal investigators in Texas brought an obscenity indictment in June against a former Dallas police officer, Garry Ragsdale, and his wife, Tamara. The couple were charged with conspiring to mail obscene material for selling sexually violent videos through an Internet business that billed itself as "the real rape video store."
Earlier this year, Justice Department officials charged a couple from Lewisburg, W.Va., with mailing obscene videotapes and DVDs - described by investigators as depicting "graphic and sexually explicit scenes of defecation and urination." This week, defendants Michael and Sharon Corbett pleaded guilty and agreed to forfeit more than $75,000 and all materials associated with their business.
The case that has drawn the most attention, though, has been the one in U.S. District Court in Pittsburgh against Zicari, 29, also known as Rob Black, and his wife, Janet Romano, 26, who also goes by the name Lizzie Borden. They are scheduled to be arraigned today on a 10-count indictment alleging violations of federal obscenity laws for mailing sexually violent videotapes and DVDs, and for transmitting obscene video clips on the Web site for their North Hollywood business, Extreme Associates Inc.
The charges came as part of a sting operation conducted by criminal investigators with the U.S. Postal Service. Investigators said one of the tapes depicted the rape and murder of several women. Another showed women dressed to appear as teen-agers and included scenes suggesting incest.
The case is being closely watched, in part because Zicari and Romano are creators of adult films and they are based in California's San Fernando Valley - the heart of the adult entertainment industry. By bringing the charges in Pittsburgh, authorities ensured that the case would go to trial in a more conservative community.
The U.S. attorney for the Western District of Pennsylvania, Mary Beth Buchanan, said similar cases would follow. Attorney General John Ashcroft said the Justice Department would "continue to focus our efforts on targeted obscenity prosecutions that will deter others from producing and distributing obscene materials."
The adult entertainment industry, as well as those who oppose it, have expected a renewed effort to curb pornography distribution since Ashcroft was named attorney general by President Bush in 2001.
During the Clinton administration, Attorney General Janet Reno largely eschewed adult obscenity prosecutions, focusing instead on combating child pornography and online predators.
Ashcroft, whose political reputation was one of strict social conservatism, drew notice by the pornography industry in his first year on the job, when his department paid $8,000 for curtains to drape a bare-breasted statue, Spirit of Justice, and a male counterpart, Majesty of Law, at its headquarters in Washington.