By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
The court stenographer is cracking slightly off-color jokes. Two young male prosecutors who've stopped by are thumbing through the racy evidence, trying their damnedest to maintain sober looks. Even Judge Ralph Taite is reminiscing about a funny thing that happened at a long-ago blue-movie trial. Everybody, it seems, is enjoying his work.
The only glum face belongs to 22-year-old Brenda Woodson, the defendant. Dressed up for court in a charcoal suit and white blouse, she's pursing her lips, clutching her hands and sitting upright and rigid at the defense table.
Usually, this work-a-day misdemeanor court concerns itself with bad behavior on the road. Tucked behind the jury box and tacked to the paneled walls are hand-drawn diagrams of streets and intersections, black-and-white tracings of the errant paths of people who drink too much and try to drive home.
On this Wednesday in mid-April, though, the court has something more challenging on its plate than a routine DWI. Unlike a driving violation, the crime alleged has no posted speed limits, no scientific breath test and few double yellow lines.
Although roughly two dozen stores around Dallas rent or sell movies depicting unsimulated sexual acts between consenting adults and are licensed to do so under city codes, Dallas police vice officers routinely wander into the stores, pick out one or two particularly graphic titles and file misdemeanor promotion-of-obscenity charges against the clerk who rang up the sale.
That's right. The clerk. Not the owners, who in this case have led prosperous lives in Dallas, circulating in the ranks of respectable society. Gary Hartstein and Paul Radnitz, the principal owners of New Fine Arts Video, are nowhere near the defense table today because it's the city's policy to register its distaste for the burgeoning porn industry by prosecuting only the working sods who run the stuff through the scanner and put the money in the till.
These enforcement actions, which happen once or twice a month at New Fine Arts, appear to be more political accommodation than anti-porn crusade. They do next to nothing to stamp out smut. The ritual does, however, allow Dallas police and prosecutors to say they're doing something when complaining residents or the Center for Decency--backed by notables such as real estate mogul Ebby Halliday and car dealer Ray Huffines--ask what's being done to push back the licentious tide.
The vice squad's busts, which have been going on routinely for the past decade, are a problem for one group of people, and one alone: the low-wage store clerks who are criminally charged.
Over the past 18 months, 14 clerks working at New Fine Arts Video's two Dallas stores have picked up 22 movie-related obscenity charges, each punishable by up to a year in jail and a $4,000 fine. Woodson's came last August, when undercover vice officer Craig Reynerson plunked down $43.50 for Euro Angels #20, a six-scene European title featuring a lot of close-ups of some decidedly unromantic sex.
"I don't remember him coming in, but I remember the day because it was my birthday," Woodson recalls. "When they came back and charged me, I cried. A little later I quit...I didn't especially enjoy working there." Woodson says she took the job because she needed the money, and 10 bucks an hour at the relatively clean, well-lighted porno superstore was better than anything else she could find at night. Living alone, she needed to pay rent and her tuition at Collin County Community College, where she's taking 3-D computer animation. She's going on to Prairie View A&M next year.
In the past, Woodson's bosses would have encouraged her to plead guilty and would have ponied up for her fine, usually around $1,000. There are clerks working in Dallas porno shops with more than 50 such convictions to their names.
Over the last 18 months, though, New Fine Arts and another large shop, Amazing Superstore, have taken a different tack. They began hiring Andrew Chatham, a fresh-faced lawyer who recently worked as a public defender, and they've been taking the cases to trial. To everyone's surprise, Chatham has won every one--11 in a row going into Woodson's. He has forced 17 other charges to be dropped.
Chatham's success rests in part on changing sexual attitudes, which have no doubt loosened in Dallas over the years. It is still a stronghold of "red states" social conservatism, but Dallas is the kind of city where one week a group will hold a golf tournament with topless dancers tending the flagsticks, and the next week someone will be teeing it up to support a decency campaign.
Chatham's main line of defense, though, has to do with fairness. Is it right to issue a shop a $750-a-year license to sell graphic adult material, then prosecute bottom-rung employees for selling that very thing? Dallas jurors have a keen sense of justice, Chatham has found--whether they like their erotica strong, weak or not at all. And when it comes to hypocrisy and flawed policy, they know it when they see it.