By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 17, 2010; A02
A federal judge dismissed the first obscenity prosecution brought in the nation's capital in a quarter-century on technical grounds Friday, tossing out charges against John A. Stagliano and two companies associated with the adult video producer based in Van Nuys, Calif.
Acquitting Stagliano, John Stagliano Inc. and Evil Angel Productions Inc. before they began their defense, U.S. District Court Judge Richard J. Leon said evidence presented by the Justice Department's Obscenity Prosecution Task Force in the four-day trial was "woefully insufficient" to link defendants to the production and distribution of two DVD videos at the heart of the case.
"I hope the government will learn a lesson from its experience," Leon said in a rebuke. He cited a string of "difficult, challenging and novel questions" raised in the case concerning decades-old federal obscenity statutes, the Internet, free speech and criminal defendants' rights.
"I hope that [higher] courts and Congress will give greater guidance to judges in whose courtrooms these cases will be tried," he said.
Even based on legal technicalities, the decision to toss out the charges came as a relief to the multibillion-dollar pornography industry, which has honored Stagliano, one of its larger producers and distributors, with several awards. The charges carried a sentence of up to 32 years.
Stagliano, a married father nicknamed "Buttman," is known for pushing the edge of industry standards in his depiction of fetishes, and the video scenes selected by the government for prosecution involved urination, use of enemas and bondage.
But Stagliano, 58, distributes a wide range of graphic, sexually explicit material that is hard to distinguish from videos by many others in the industry, said Robert D. Richards, a professor and co-director of the Pennsylvania Center for the First Amendment at Penn State University.
"The government said, 'We have been getting convictions on the most extreme stuff, so we can be a little more aggressive and put pressure on the entire industry,' " Richards said. "This case was the tail end of Bush administration obscenity prosecutions. Now it remains to be seen whether the Obama administration makes enforcement a priority."
Justice Department statistics show prosecutors charged 361 defendants with obscenity violations during President George W. Bush's years in office, nearly twice as many as under President Bill Clinton. In 2009, 20 defendants were charged, compared with 54 the previous year.
"This is bad for my autobiography. . . . I was hoping for a better fight than they put on," Stagliano said. But, he added, "The government has bottomless resources and can come after me at any time."
Prosecutors did not comment.