The two-year court battle involving the Oklahoma City comic book store Planet Comics came to a sudden and unexpected end when days before the case was to go to trial the defendants entered a guilty plea.
On September 5, 1997, days before the case was to go to trial, store owners Michael Kennedy and John Hunter pleaded guilty to two felony charges of trafficking in obscenity for selling the Verotik comic Verotika #4 to consenting adults.
The case began in September 1995 when Oklahoma City Police received a complaint about Planet Comics from Oklahomans for Children and Families (OKaF), an obscenity watchdog group. Undercover police officers entered the store, purchasing copies of Verotika #4 on two occasions. The police raided the store later that month, confiscating several bags full of comics.
Local prosecutors identified eight titles with which to bring charges against the store. These charges included one count each of displaying material harmful to minors for Verotika #4, Boneyard Press’ Mighty Morphing Rump Rangers, and The Viper Series Official Art Book from Japan Books; one count each of trafficking in obscene materials for the Eros comics Screamers #2, Sex Wad #2, Nefarismo #5, and Beatrix Dominatrix #2; and one count of child pornography for Eros’ The Devil’s Angel. Altogether, Kennedy and Hunter were charged with four felonies and four misdemeanors for sale of these comics to adults. These charges carried a maximum prison sentence of 43 years.
Following the raid, Kennedy and Hunter were arraigned in handcuffs. The State argued that the two retailers were “dangerous criminals,” and set bail at $20,000. The CBLDF paid $2,000 to a bail bondsman to secure the pair’s release. The CBLDF also funded defense attorneys Mark Hendrichsen, James A. Calloway, and C.S. Thornton, whose efforts resulted in the State dropping charges against all titles except Verotika #4. Two felony counts of trafficking in obscenity remained, carrying a prison sentence of three to five years.
Planet Comics was evicted from its location and the owners were forced to take a less visible and convenient location across town. During the next few months, sales dropped as much as 80% as many customers assumed Planet Comics had closed, and many parents would not permit their children to patronize the store. The police organized another raid, this time on the home of John Hunter. They confiscated the store computer and 250 discs. A brick was thrown through the store’s glass door the following week. In March of 1996, the embattled store closed its doors for the last time. “I need to step back and rebuild my life,” said Kennedy at the time. “Luckily, thanks to the CBLDF, I don’t have legal bills to contend with on top of everything else.”
The State twice delayed hearing of the case, drawing out Kennedy and Hunter’s long ordeal. The trial was eventually set for September 8, 1997. Rather than risk imprisonment and a permanent felony record, the retailers agreed to plead guilty to the two felony charges. In exchange, they were granted a three-year deferred prison sentence and a fine of $1,500 each. Kennedy and Hunter will serve no jail time if they are not convicted of any further criminal activities for a period of three years. After that time, the felonies will be permanently removed from their records.
This action was undertaken without notifying the CBLDF. It is the Fund’s policy to only take on cases where the accused individuals agree not to plead guilty in exchange for reduced penalties. “To say that we’re all disappointed is an understatement,” said Susan Alston, then executive director of the CBLDF. “In human terms, we all share a sense of relief that Kennedy and Hunter’s ordeal is over. But that in no way diminishes the fact that they were convicted in violation of their rights as Americans under the First Amendment. Their conviction will have a chilling effect on what retailers choose to display and sell in ‘high risk’ jurisdictions. This is of the greatest concern to the CBLDF and to the comics community as a whole.”
“Obviously Kennedy and Hunter did what they felt was in their best interests, on advice from their counsel,” said CBLDF president Denis Kitchen. “What’s frustrating to me is that this will only encourage Oklahoma City and like-minded prosecutors elsewhere to intimidate retailers they want out of business.”
Altogether, the cost of the case for the CBLDF was nearly $8,000. “Everyone who supported Kennedy and Hunter through contributions and fund-raising efforts can take comfort in the fact that the reduction of their sentence was due in no small part to their time, energy, and money,” said Alston.
“Still, it’s small comfort indeed when considered in the larger context. Their guilty plea represents an erosion of the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment.”