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To the jury, obscene; to him, a day's work

TAMPA — Max Hardcore is eating lunch in a cafe downtown, waiting for a jury to decide whether he'll face prison, when his cell phone buzzes.

"Hey, baby!" he says. "Yeah! The jury's still out. The longer it takes them the better it is for us."

It's Thursday, the second day of deliberations.

There's a pause.

"Here's the deal: There's some people in there who feel strongly about the First Amendment and freedom of speech. And they're in there fighting for me. And there's a couple of people — one or two — who say it doesn't matter what the law says, we're going to find this filthy pervert guilty."

He grabs the newspaper and finds a paragraph about the porn videos he produces and stars in.

"Listen to this," he says. "This is Edward McAndrew, the prosecuting attorney: 'These videos are not just offensive, they're an assault on your senses. They bludgeon you to the point of exhaustion.' "

He's laughing now. "I'm going to put this on the cover of my next movie, babe! Talk about a ringing endorsement!

"Okay, I gotta go, babe. No, I don't think I'm going to jail at all.

"All right, babe. Stay skinny."

By the end of the day, at the end of a two-week federal obscenity trial, a jury would decide that freedom of speech does not apply to Max Hardcore, that the average resident in the middle district of Florida would find his pornography obscene, worthless and illegal. The jury would convict him and his company on 20 obscenity counts, and require him to forfeit his three most popular domain names and face as many as 50 years in prison. The jury would make him shed tears.

The jury never heard him talk.

• • •

For close to eight hours during the trial, Hardcore, wearing a pinstripe suit and an American flag lapel pin, had sat in the polished, dark-wood sterility of federal courtroom 14A, as strangers watched him have sex on a giant screen.

They squirmed, diverted their eyes, shifted in their chairs.

"I'm thinking, 'This is so surreal,' " Hardcore, whose real name is Paul F. Little, says during a break. "This is so surreally stupid."

Little, 51, had a normal childhood, he says. He grew up in Racine, Wis., the son of an artist and a homemaker. He studied auto mechanics at Milwaukee Area Technical College and worked in construction and as a mechanic.

After a stint distributing federal housing grants in the Florida Keys in the late 1980s, he moved to California. Little's brother introduced him to the porn business. He was soon shooting videos for himself, but quickly ran into a problem getting male actors to perform the way he wanted. So he began to sub for his actors, and gained notoriety for a series called The Anal Adventures of Max Hardcore.

His movies had little pretext of a plot, and actors interacted freely with the camera, contributing to a genre that became known as "gonzo" porn.

"There wasn't anything like it out there," Little says. "It put me on the map."

When Little was indicted last year, after FBI agents raided his home and studio, a Justice Department spokesman told the Los Angeles Times that the prosecution was part of an anti-obscenity initiative started in 2001 under former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft.

Take down a pioneer, send a message.

Little's videos are difficult to describe in a newspaper, but their content is key to understanding why the U.S. government spent two years trying to lock him away and fish his porn­ography out of the stream of commerce.

In his videos, female actors are subjected to a number of abnormal acts. He directs them to drink his urine. He physically makes them vomit. He uses medical and dental devices in sex acts. There is spanking, slapping and name-calling.

The women's faces betray pain, humiliation. They have dead eyes. Subtract the sex and it's similar to the way people look eating worms on Fear Factor.

The actors are over 18 and participate of their own accord. The government did not dispute this.

And Little does not dispute that the videos are disturbing.

"We're all exploited in some way, you know? So what if it's getting up on a building in the hot sun and pounding nails, or sitting in an office all day with more work than you can handle? I don't feel guilty at all about exploiting my girls. In less than an hour they make anywhere from $600 to $1,500. Are they in discomfort sometimes? Yeah. They are. It's a physical sport."

The government presented evidence that Little earned more than $40,000 in a single month on video sales. The films afforded him a big house and a little dog in Altadena, Calif., a life of travel, and a cultish fame.

After lunch Thursday, Little is walking toward the courthouse when a young construction worker rushes out of a restaurant.

"How's it going, Max?"

"The jury's still deliberating. Looks good for us."

"I saw they made 'em watch porn," the man says. "I want to be on that jury."

"Yeah," Little says.

"Keep fighting the good fight," the man says, beaming.

• • •

In the courtyard at the Residence Inn, Little is chain-smoking Camel Wides and complaining that being tried 2,500 miles from home has cost him hundreds of thousands of dollars.

"The people in power," he says, "especially the Republicans, are perpetuating this, trying to impose their moral views on everyone else. Somebody's got to stand up to them."

"What's wrong with sex?" he adds. "What's wrong with two consenting adults getting it on, and exploring certain fantasies?"

Until this trial, one of Little's attorneys points out, no one has ever been forced to watch Max Hardcore's videos.

The videos state — in scrolling premovie messages, and with actors speaking to the camera — that the material is graphic and may be offensive or violate community standards.

The jury was told to decide whether the "average person" in the middle district of Florida would find that the material appeals to the prurient interest.

It's a district where one of the world's most famous strip clubs is just down the street from where families watch the New York Yankees each spring practice America's pastime. A district with one of the country's largest churches, Without Walls, and an annual sexual fetish conference that draws thousands. A district with at least 54 adult video stores, the debauchery of Gasparilla and Guavaween, and a county commission so conservative it banned the county government from so much as acknowledging gay pride.

What is average? The construction worker who recognized Little on the street? The alternate juror who pleaded with the judge to stop the films?

"People down here should be outraged," Little says. "If it's so offensive here, where are the protesters?"

He says he's proud of his movies. He is asked if his parents, both deceased, would agree. He gets choked up.

"I started doing this when they were alive," he says, running his fingers under his sunglasses. "They'd be proud I was protecting people's rights."

• • •

A few minutes before 4 p.m., the jury is struggling. Judge Susan C. Bucklew gets a note: We are fairly certain we will not be able to reach a unanimous decision.

She tells them to try again.

"They're split and they're fighting," Little says outside the courtroom. "The right-wingers, they'll give up. They'll say, 'I gotta get out of here. God'll take care of him.' The free-speechers, they don't give up. They don't bend."

On the ride to the lobby, the elevator stops and an attractive woman steps aboard. Little slides up close enough to smell her hair.

"I like your glasses," he says.

"Thanks," she says.

"What do you do?" he says.

"I'm a clerk for a judge."

"You hear about that trial up there? The porn trial."

"Yeah, I heard about that," she says.

"You're pretty," he says.

She grins and walks away.

"I was just trying to get her number," he says, "because when I walk out of here a free man, I wouldn't mind giving her a call."

• • •

The courthouse is nearly empty. The clock says 6:14 when whispers begin to fly.

A lawyer says, "We've got a verdict!"

The room fills. The jury enters.

A clerk shuffles the papers, then reads each indictment in the case of the United States vs. Paul F. Little.

"Guilty," she says, 20 times.

The defense attorneys hang their heads. One rubs Little's shoulder. He stares at the jurors.

When Little steps outside, the sun is burning hard and white through a clump of clouds. He squints, covers his eyes.

His lawyers stand together on the courthouse steps, near a cluster of reporters.

"Whenever freedom of speech is tarnished in any way," says one, "it's a sad day for America."

Little starts to open his mouth. He wants to let it out, freedom of speech and all that.

"I want to say someth ..."

His attorneys cut him off, tell him to stay quiet, and for the first time all day, Paul Little, standing at the foot of a giant American flag, can't say what he wants.

Ben Montgomery can be reached at bmontgomery@sptimes.com.

To the jury, obscene; to him, a day's work 06/07/08 [Last modified: Saturday, June 14, 2008 11:50pm]

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