Think of it as Oliver Stone’s Amite-ville horror. In the small Louisiana backwater of Amite (pop. 4,800), where the only motel is a truck stop off I-55, every action taken by Hollywood’s favorite conspiracy theorist during the filming of Natural Born Killers may soon stand trial.
On July 22, a long-simmering civil lawsuit involving a reputed copycat killing — allegedly inspired by Stone’s ultraviolent 1994 media satire — edged closer to a courtroom showdown set to star the director and Time Warner (the parent company of EW and Warner Bros., NBK’s distributor). Lawyers for Stone and Time Warner have agreed to let the director be deposed this fall as part of a lawsuit filed on behalf of a convenience-store clerk paralyzed in a holdup linked to the $50 million-grossing movie.
Both Hollywood and First Amendment activists are nervously monitoring this civil action, since it promises to transfer the battle over movie violence from the op-ed pages into the courtroom, where any decision could set a landmark precedent. Says CNN legal analyst Greta Van Susteren (who is technically a Time Warner employee), ”There’s a climate of wanting to teach Hollywood a lesson on violence…the courts are one place that’s happening.”
The violent facts of the lawsuit are indisputable. In March 1995, Sarah Edmondson, an Oklahoma teen, and her boyfriend, Benjamin Darras, both 18, went on a cross-state crime spree during which she shot and paralyzed store clerk Patsy Byers, during a robbery in Ponchatoula, La., and he killed cotton gin manager William Savage of Hernando, Miss. Before embarking on their rampage, Edmondson and Darras had dropped acid and watched Stone’s film about a couple (played by Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis) who find fame on a brutally depicted murder spree.
Edmondson, serving 35 years for the robbery and shooting of Byers (who died of cancer in 1997), has given conflicting statements about the film’s role in the crime. To police, she said, ”It was as if [Darras] was fantasizing from the movie….” She told Vanity Fair in 1996: ”It is not as great as I would like to make it be…. I wish I could point the finger at Hollywood completely.”
But at least one well-known person has found Natural Born Killers guilty of inspiring the crime. Author John Grisham, a friend of Savage’s, was enraged at the senseless killing (Darras pleaded guilty to murder and is now serving a life sentence) and lashed out at Stone’s movie in the spring 1996 issue of The Oxford American, a bimonthly journal that he co-owns.
”Think of a movie as a product, something created and brought to market, not too dissimilar from…Ford Pintos,” Grisham argued. ”If something goes wrong with the product, whether by design or defect, and injury ensues, its makers are held responsible.” (Grisham didn’t respond to a request for an interview.)
While Grisham raised the issue of creative malpractice, Amite attorney Joe Simpson, 74, who’d been retained by Patsy Byers in ‘95, added a ”product liability” claim to his lawsuit, which already alleged that Stone and Time Warner through NBK had incited Edmondson and Darras to commit the Byers crime. At first, the case was a nonstarter; it was dismissed in January 1997 on the grounds that the defendants were protected by the First Amendment’s free speech guarantee.