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For Further Study:

Television Intoxication and Other Media Defenses

Compiled by Adrienne Buckman and Alyce Cobb

November 30, 2009

Case Study: Television Intoxication and Other Media Defenses

INTRODUCTION:  The Zamora Case

The 1982 Florida case Zamora v. State was unusual, in part because defense attorney Ellis Rubin attempted to argue that his client suffered from ‘television intoxication’.  He claimed that as a result of television intoxication the fifteen year-old defendant was insane when he shot and killed his elderly neighbor after she discovered him burglarizing her home. 

During trial, Rubin tried to introduce expert testimony concerning the effect of violent television on children, however, the trial judge excluded the testimony of psychologist Dr. Margaret Thomas for failure to meet the M’Naghten Rule, which is one standard used by states for asserting a defense of insanity. 

Elements of the M’Naghten Rule:

  • A defect of reason, from disease of the mind
  • The defendant did not know the nature and quality of the act he was doing
  • Whether the defendant knew what he was doing was wrong

Because Dr. Thomas could not conclusively link any particular TV show or amount of TV violence directly to the homicide perpetrated by the defendant (or to any defendant in a homicide case), the testimony was excluded and the ruling was upheld on appeal. 

 Zamora v. State, 361 So.2d 776 (Fla. 3d DCA 1978).


Pornography Intoxication

Schiro v. Clark, 963 F.2d 962 (7th Cir. 1992)

In 1981, Thomas Schiro was convicted of raping and murdering Laura Jane Luebbehusen in Indiana.  During the trial, Schiro argued that "argued that he was a sexual sadist and that his extensive viewing of rape pornography and snuff films rendered him unable to distinguish right from wrong."  He also introduced expert testimony of Edward Donnerstein who testified that "after a short exposure to aggressive pornography "non-rapist populations begin to endorse myths about rape. . . .They begin to say that women enjoy being raped and they begin to say that using force in sexual encounters is okay. Sixty percent of the subjects will also indicate that if not caught they would commit the rape themselves."  Schiro’s own autobiographical statement claimed that his viewing of violent pornography made him want to rape someone. The trial judge, however, rejected Schiro’s argument that pornography was a mitigation factor similar to mental disease or defect or intoxication. The court, citing First Amendment cases concerning pornography stated that "[i]t would be impossible to hold both that pornography does not directly cause violence but criminal actors do, and that criminal actors do not cause violence, pornography does.." The court ultimately affirmed the trial court’s conviction on several grounds.

Social Science Research concerning the Effects of Television Violence on Children

Wile E. Coyote v. Road Runner -

Research conducted over the last several years has concluded that television violence affects viewers’ behavior, attitudes, and values.  Generally, research has demonstrated 3 main effects of watching television violence:

  • Aggression
  • Desensitization
  • Fear

A 1978 study conducted in England by CBS observed 1,565 13- to 17- year old boys living in London.  Researchers interviewed the boys many times throughout the study to determine their level of exposure to violent television.  Members of the BBC viewing panel rated the level and type (realistic, fictional, etc.) of violence.  The study determined each participant’s level of violent behavior by how often they were involved in 53 different categories of violence over the previous 6 months. The study found that approximately 50% of the participants were not involved in any violent behavior during the six month period.  The study, however, found that the 12% of the participants who were involved in violent behavior committed ten or more acts during the six month period.  By comparing the behavior of boys with lower levels of exposure to those with higher levels of exposure, the researchers determined that the boys who viewed more violence were involved in more serious interpersonal violence.

Another correlational study conducted by Leonard Eron and his colleagues (Eron, 1963, 1982; Huesmann & Eron, 1986; Huesmann, Eron, Lefkowitz, & Walder, 1984; Lefkowitz et al., 1972) studied 211 boys over a period of 22 years. In the early studies, the researchers determined the long-term effects of television violence by studying children over a 10-year period from age 8 to age 18. During the study the participants were interviewed about which television programs they preferred and information was collected from peer ratings of aggressive behavior. The study found that the level of exposure to television violence at age 8 was significantly related to aggression at age 8 (r=.21) and that the level of exposure to television violence at age 8 was significantly related to aggression at age 18 (r=.31). The study found, however, that television violence preferences at age 18 were not significantly related to aggressive behavior at age 8 (r=.01). Moreover, in a follow-up study at age 30, the researchers found a significant correlation (r=.41) between television violence levels at age 8 and interpersonal criminal behavior such as assault, murder, child abuse, domestic violence, and rape at age 30.

Zamora extended to other contexts

The "television intoxication defense" has been extended beyond the television to include intoxication caused by other media forms.  For example, in 2000, Michael Ian Campbell, an 18 year old Florida male, was accused of threatening a Columbine High School student stating that he would "finish what begun" at Columbine.  Campbell sent the threatening comments to Erin J. Walton, a 16 year old junior at Columbine, via AOL’s instant message service.  Campbell’s lawyer, Ellis Rubin, was the same lawyer involved in Zamora.  Rubin planned to argue that Campbell was suffering from "internet intoxication" and that be was role playing when he made the threat.  Rubin alleged that the internet can create euphoria and madness, stating "[y]ou’ve logged on and gone into this imaginary world, this playland, this make-believe arena."  Just as in Zamora, the defense was not successful.  Campbell ultimately pleaded guilty.

Natural Born Killers and the First Amendment

The Oliver Stone film Natural Born Killers has been linked directly or indirectly to at least 12 murders in North America since its release in 1994.  The film’s main characters are Mickey and Mallory, and the movie follows them on their murderous rampage slaying nearly 100 people across the southwestern US over a one-month period.  However, the most controversial element of the movie is not necessarily the number of murders itself, but rather the fact that Mickey and Mallory take on celebrity status in the media with every life they take.  The final scene of the movie shows the pair with their children, driving down a deserted highway in a Winnebago. 

Perhaps the most notable case of ‘copycat killing’ involving Natural Born Killers is that of Sarah Edmondson and Ben Darrus, an Oklahoma couple that admitted to frequently taking LSD and watching the film.  When they set out on a road trip in March of 1995 to see a Grateful Dead concert, the excursion turned deadly when they robbed and murdered Bill Savage and attempted the murder of Patsy Byers in a separate incident.  The two were eventually caught, and in addition to the criminal charges against Edmonson and Darrus, the attorneys for Patsy Byers brought a civil suit against Oliver Stone and Warner Brothers, and others responsible for production and distribution of the film.  Noted lawyer and writer John Grisham, who was a friend of Bill Savage, weighed in on behalf of Byer. 

Grisham attempted to define a movie as a ‘product’, thereby bringing it within the ambit of products liability laws.  Victims in products liability cases have the right to recover against the manufacturer or service provider, and Grisham argued that the same right to recovery should apply as against moviemakers like Oliver Stone.  Stone’s ountered arguing that movies cannot be judged as a ‘product’ because to do so would violate the First Amendment right to freedom of speech.   "It’s not a film’s responsibility to tell you what the law is.  And if you kill somebody, you’ve broken the law… And yes, people may have been influenced by the film in some way, but they had deeper problems to contend with." 

Byers v. Edmonson, 826 So.2d 551 (1st. Cir. 2002)

There are four categories of speech that do not receive constitutional protection:

  • Obscene speech
  • Defamatory invasions of privacy
  • Fighting words
  • Words likely to produce imminent lawless action

Byers’ attorneys argued that Natural Born Killers as a film contained words likely to produce imminent lawless action.  In order pass muster, the speech must:

  • Be directed or intended toward the goal of producing imminent lawless conduct
  • Be likely to product such conduct

First Circuit Court of Appeals held:  "Natural Born Killers does not purport to order or command anyone to perform any concrete action immediately or at any specific time.  Nor do we find this film promotes crime in concrete, non-abstract terms… Accordingly, as a matter of law, we find Natural Born Killers cannot be considered insightful speech that would remove it from First Amendment protection."

Additional Resources:

The Law: Did TV Make Him Do It?, TIME, Oct. 10, 1977, available at:

Teen Rejects 'Internet Intoxication' Defense for E-Mail Threat, ESCHOOLNEWS, Mar. 1, 2000, available at:

John P. Murray, Media Violence: The Effects are Both Real and Strong, 51 American Behavioral Scientist, 1212 (2008).

See Dean M. Shapiro, Natural Born Killers, available at: