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Today the US Supreme Court ruled that images of animal cruelty are expressions of free speech and that those who profit from such depictions can hide behind the First Amendment of the Constitution. It’s an unfortunate decision by the nation’s highest court, and it’s a tragedy for the animals who will suffer the consequences.

The ruling centered on the case of Virginia resident Robert Stevens, who was convicted of animal cruelty four years ago after he sold videos depicting dogfights and so-called “hog-dog fighting,” including graphic footage of a pit bull mutilating the lower jaw of a live pig. He also provided voiceover narration on each video and even marketed the videos in underground dogfighting magazines. Authorities charged Stevens with violating a 1999 law that prohibits the creation, sale or possession of depictions of animal cruelty if the offender intends to place such depictions into interstate commerce for commercial gain. Stevens’ lawyers argued that he is actually against dogfighting.

Stevens was sentenced to 37 months in prison, but the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit threw out his conviction and struck down the law in 2008, saying it violated the constitutional right to free speech. The Supreme Court has declared that speech can be restricted when the government has a compelling reason to do so; child pornography, for example, is not protected by the First Amendment. But in its decision, the appeals court stated that the government did not have a “compelling interest” in limiting scenes of cruelty to animals and said that “Preventing cruelty to animals, although an exceedingly worthy goal, simply does not implicate interests of the same magnitude as protecting children from physical and psychological harm.” Last April, the high court agreed to a request by the United States Solicitor General, Elena Kagan, to review the appeals court decision.

The decade-old law Stevens violated — the federal Depiction of Animal Cruelty Act ― was intended to ban so-called “crush” videos, which depict puppies, kittens and other small animals being tortured and crushed to death, typically beneath the spiked heel of a woman’s shoe. These highly disturbing videos appeal to equally disturbed humans, who derive sexual pleasure from watching defenseless animals writhing and squealing in pain. According to the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), before the law was enacted, there were about 2,000 crush videos available in the marketplace, selling for $15 to $300 each. Over the last 10 years, the market for such animal snuff films had all but vanished. After the Stevens conviction was reversed in 2008, however, sales of crush videos online made a comeback. One can reasonably speculate that the peddlers of these twisted videos will now be getting even richer.

Of course, most observers predicted how this case would turn out from the very day the Supreme Court heard oral arguments and appeared to believe the 1999 law was overbroad. On October 6, 2009, Justice Antonin Scalia, known to be an avid hunter, said that the court needed to consider “the right of people who like cockfighting, who like dogfighting and who like bullfighting to present their side of the debate” just as passionately as the critics of these cruel activities. “What if I am an aficionado of bullfights,” Scalia added, “and I think ― contrary to the animal cruelty people — they ennoble both beast and man, and I want to persuade people that we should have them? I would not be able to market videos showing people how exciting a bullfight is.” His comments were widely reported, and you could almost hear the collective “WTF?” from the animal rights community. We could see the writing on the blood-stained wall.

In addition to his legal team, Stevens was supported by some of the brand names of animal exploitation, including the National Rifle Association, the National Shooting Sports Foundation and Safari Club International. These special-interest groups have a powerful presence and deep pockets.

Only Justice Samuel Alito dissented in the case, observing that the harm animals suffer in dogfights was enough to sustain the law. He also singled out crush videos and noted that “The animals used in crush videos are living creatures that [sic] experience excruciating pain.” In his dissent of the Court’s opinion, Alito refers to the 1999 law that has now been declared unconstitutional, writing that “Congress was presented with compelling evidence that the only way of preventing these crimes was to target the sale of the videos. Under these circumstances, I cannot believe that the First Amendment commands Congress to step aside and allow the underlying crimes to continue.” The courts, Alito noted, have “erred in second-guessing the legislative judgment about the importance of preventing cruelty to animals.”

Chief Justice John Roberts suggested that if Congress passes a law explicitly banning crush videos, it might be constitutional, since it would be narrowly focused on a specific type of commercial enterprise. That is precisely what animal protectionists will be now pushing for. “The Supreme Court’s decision gives us a clear pathway to enact a narrower ban on the sale of videos depicting malicious acts of cruelty, including animal crush videos and dogfighting,” says Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of HSUS. “Congress should act swiftly to make sure the First Amendment is not used as a shield for those committing barbaric acts of cruelty, and then peddling their videos on the Internet.”

Though I know advocates will continue to fight on behalf of animals and will likely introduce new legislation to combat these videos, it is lamentable that our nation’s highest court has, for the moment, silenced those trying to speak for victims who have no voice.

In the hierarchy of social justice issues, the rights of animals are often ranked at or near the very bottom of the pyramid. Sadly, most people overlook the problems animals face, regarding them less as beings with emotions and desires and more as objects whose central role is to satisfy the needs of humans: food, clothing, scientific advancement, entertainment, companionship, etc. Even the law regards animals as property, with no more rights than a toaster or an old sofa. Yet the law can help protect animals, and organizations around the world are dedicated to creating animal-protection legislation and ensuring that animal abusers are held responsible for their crimes.

One such group, the Animal Legal Defense Fund, has just launched a campaign urging states to enact animal-abuser registries that would help keep anyone convicted of felony animal cruelty away from new victims by allowing animal shelters and humane societies to more thoroughly screen potential adopters. Such registries, inspired by Megan’s Law, would also allow the public to discover if animal abusers live in their community.

“Animal abuse is not only a danger to our cats, dogs, horses and other animals, but also to people,” says Stephen Wells, executive director of ALDF. “Many animal abusers have a history of domestic violence or other criminal activity, and there is a disturbing trend of animal abuse among our country’s most notorious serial killers.” These murderers include Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer, Albert DeSalvo (“The Boston Strangler”), David Berkowtiz (“The Son of Sam”) and Dennis Rader (“The BTK Killer”), all of whom tortured and killed animals before moving on to humans. Animal cruelty is so common among violent offenders that the FBI has linked it to serial homicides, domestic violence and child abuse. “But it’s not just about how animal abusers end up also hurting or killing humans,” says Wells. “It should be enough to protect our animals from repeat offenders ― and any abuse of any kind.”

You can learn more about the registry at

ALDF’s campaign launch coincides with National Justice for Animals Week (February 21-27), an effort by the nonprofit to educate the public about abuses that have become a hidden epidemic in the US. Throughout the week, ALDF will be posting daily action items, advice on how to recognize and report cruelty to animals and profiles of 2010 National Justice for Animals Week honorees ― district attorneys and other local law enforcement officials who have demonstrated an aggressive commitment to bringing animal abusers to justice.

What You Can Do:

  • Use the site’s one-click functionality to contact your legislators and urge them to support public registries of convicted animal abusers.

When animal advocates want to measure how far we’ve come as a movement, I can think of no better barometer than the burgeoning field of animal law, which works to stop animal cruelty and suffering through legislation and litigation. Once considered a niche area of legal practice, animal law has expanded over the last 20 years to become one of the rising stars of jurisprudence. Consider, for example, that 10 years ago students interested in animal law had only a handful of schools to choose from. Today, there are more than 100 animal law classes being taught at colleges throughout the United States and Canada. Some of the biggest news concerning animal cruelty is coming out of the US Supreme Court, which earlier this month heard arguments regarding free speech and animal fighting videos ― it’s the first case involving animal cruelty the high court has considered since 1993, when, by the way, only seven states had felony-level anti-cruelty laws; now 46 states do. Even China, where animal welfare is not given much value (the country is notorious for its widespread and indiscriminate killing of dogs, for example), recently drafted its first law to protect animals from abuse. And of course the high-profile Michael Vick dogfighting case did much to push the importance of animal law into the public discourse.

Lewis_and_ClarkSo it was a genuine privilege for me to speak at the 17th-annual animal law conference at Lewis & Clark Law School in Portland, Oregon, last weekend. I was on a panel with Bob Roop of the Humane Society of the United States; Bob spoke about secondary trauma, which he described as the stress caregivers such as shelter workers experience, and I addressed the issue of activist burnout. The session attendees were very engaged in this topic, and it felt good to discuss such an important issue.

The rest of the time I got to take in what was, for the most part, a terrific event: great vegan food, excellent speakers, and a schedule that was extremely well organized. And, of course, you can’t beat Portland, which ranks as one of the best vegan cities anywhere. In keeping with the theme of this year’s sold-out event, “The Links,” the conference explored animal law and its connection to other areas of the law and professional disciplines, philosophies, and social justice movements, including domestic violence, the environment, international trade, religion, and the media.

Scott Heiser, director of ALDF’s Criminal Justice Program, offers tips for persuading prosecutors to pursue animal-cruelty cases.

Scott Heiser, director of ALDF’s Criminal Justice Program, offers tips for persuading prosecutors to pursue animal-cruelty cases.

I found three panel sessions to be particularly interesting. The first was “The People v. Animal Cruelty: Criminal Prosecutions,” led by Scott Heiser, director of the Criminal Justice Program for ALDF, and Heidi Moawad, deputy district attorney for the Multnomah County, Oregon, district attorney’s office. Heiser and Moawad, both highly experienced animal attorneys, offered advice for motivating district attorneys who are reluctant to prosecute animal abusers (e.g., go to the press, use social media), and they emphasized the link between cruelty to animals and other forms of violence. “People who abuse animals are five times more likely to commit a violent crime against humans,” said Heiser. He noted that public opinion is very important to prosecutors, so writing letters to editors applauding their good work on behalf of animals makes a real difference. Moawad, meanwhile, stressed the need for citizens to report cases of animal abuse or neglect. “Get involved,” she said. I appreciated that the panelists offered suggestions that anyone can do.

Next up, animal law experts Katherine Meyer (partner, Meyer Glitzenstein & Crystal) and Bruce Wagman (partner, Schiff Hardin LLP) presented a number of “Hot Topics in Animal Law,” including the aforementioned US Supreme Court case, better known as the United States v. Stevens, which will decide whether video depictions of animal cruelty are expressions of free speech and thus protected under the First Amendment of the Constitution. An appeals court had ruled that the government did not have a compelling interest in the animal cruelty shown in dogfighting videos produced and narrated by defendant Robert Stevens, and that “Preventing cruelty to animals, although an exceedingly worthy goal, simply does not implicate interests of the same magnitude as protecting children from physical and psychological harm.” Although Meyer feels the Supreme Court is likely to rule that the ban on such videos, as currently written, is unconstitutional, she said, “The good news is they may say the Third Circuit [Court of Appeals] was wrong when they said the government does not have a compelling interest in protecting animals.”

In his segment of the panel session, Wagman said that as a lawyer, he tries to put himself in the animal’s place, asking “What would they want?” He highlighted seven current cutting-edge animal law issues, including species-specific legislation (e.g., dogfighting statutes); exotic animal ownership; horse abandonment, which has gotten worse in this down economy; animal hoarding; shelter practices (no-kill vs. humane euthanasia); understanding the opposition, which tries to marginalize our interests; and farmed animals. Of the latter, Wagman said, “They’re born into misery, they live in misery, and they die in misery. There’s no moment in their lives when they’re not being mistreated in some way.” Bruce closed the session by suggesting a “compassion revolution,” emphasizing that advocates need to keep their eyes on the prize and promote kindness. “It is emotionally crushing to do this work,” he said. “It’s an effort to redeem our species from eternal shame.”

Finally, “Killing with Keystrokes: CITES, African Elephants & Internet Trade” featured Special Agent Ed Newcomer of the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and Paul Todd of the International Fund for Animal Welfare. Not surprisingly, the Internet has helped fuel trafficking in wildlife items, including animal skins, endangered butterflies, elephant tusks, and exotic birds. According to Todd, the US is responsible for two-thirds of the worldwide illegal trade, which represents at least $20 billion a year. Only illegal drugs and weapons are bigger markets, he said. Todd gave a great case study that showed how online auction site eBay has finally banned ivory sales in compliance with the Convention on the International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES) treaty, an agreement among 172 nations meant to ensure that international trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival. Elephant parts account for 73 percent of the world’s illegal trade in animals, said Todd, and a whopping 98 percent of that is ivory.

Newcomer, a former state prosecutor, draped several confiscated animal skins across a large table at the front of the room. The skin of a dog imported from China was particularly haunting; two almond-shaped holes where the eyes had been gave the skin an eerie, Halloween mask feel. The skin had been expertly dyed to resemble that of a leopard, and it lay between a genuine leopard skin and a tiger skin. Neatly folded beside the dog skin was a large swath of elephant hide, which was passed around the room. It felt surprisingly soft — though I’ve never touched an elephant ― and Newcomer explained the skin is often used for pillow cases. The Internet has had a devastating impact on wildlife, he explained, because it has created a demand in the market for illegal specimens. He used the online sale of an endangered Asian elephant head as an example. “Five people bid on something and one person wins. What do the other four people do? All of a sudden, they need to find themselves an Asian elephant head or some other body part!” Poachers and smugglers are using Skype and online newspaper posts to aid their crimes, but Newcomer said Craigslist is the worst. “It’s the wild west of animal trafficking,” he said.

Newcomer’s final comment, made as an aside, caught my interest. He explained that agents with USFWS get their enforcement authority from the Lacey Act, which prohibits trade in wildlife, fish, and plants that have been illegally taken, possessed, transported, or sold. But something else falls under the Lacey Act, he said: preventing animal enterprise terrorism. “Fish and Wildlife Service is the agency responsible for enforcing the Lacey Act. There are no agents in Fish and Wildlife interested in the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act, but the FBI is all over it!”

I have one minor quibble with “The Links,” and having considered this blog post for several days, I have to be candid. While the conference was motivating, informative, and very well executed, it featured one panel that was, in my opinion, a mistake — or at the very least, poorly handled. “The Role of Animals in Indigenous Cultures” was little more than a forum for justifying the exploitation of animals by Native American tribes and criticizing groups working to protect animals. Attendees sat dumbfounded as Native American activist Se-ah-dom Edmo and professor of law and tribal judge Robert Miller, a citizen of the Eastern Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma, discussed why Native Americans have a right to kill animals for food and religious purposes. It was clear that the two panelists were as uncomfortable as their audience when no one laughed at their playful swipes at the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. Though I recognize the value of understanding everyone’s legal rights, I had to wonder what these clearly intelligent speakers thought they were accomplishing by addressing a roomful of animal advocates. I’m neither an attorney nor a law student, so perhaps the significance of this discussion was lost on me; however, during the lunch break that followed this panel, many attendees complained that such a presentation had no place at an animal rights gathering. This isn’t the first time I’ve attended an AR conference that featured exploitation apologists, and my suggestion is that if such sessions are allowed, they should be moderated debates that allow ample audience participation. All questions at this panel had to be submitted in writing. A session arguing the need for killing animals and poking fun at activists only leaves attendees at these otherwise uplifting events feeling disempowered.

That criticism aside, the Student Animal Legal Defense Fund (SALDF) of Lewis & Clark Law School, which hosted the conference with the college’s Center for Animal Law Studies, did an extraordinary job. The sessions moved like clockwork, speakers were well prepared, and the subject matter was highly relevant. Kudos to the unflappable Liberty Mulkani, who coordinated the three-day event with confidence and a smile. My sincere thanks to the conference organizers for inviting me to speak this year.

I was fortunate to attend the 16th-annual animal law conference at the Lewis & Clark Law School in Portland, Oregon, last weekend. The three-day event brought together attorneys, law students, academics and animal advocates from around the world.


The field of animal law didn’t even exist 30 or so years ago, yet today it is one of the most popular fields for law students eager to make a difference for animals. Interestingly, the conference attracted activists who will likely never see the inside of a courtroom ― they simply want to learn how the law can be used to advance the interests of animals. Oh, and the food was all vegan, which means I put on about three pounds eating baked goods. I felt like Homer Simpson at a Dunkin’ Donuts buffet.


Conference speakers included Gene Baur of Farm Sanctuary, Paul Waldau of Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine, Joyce Tischler of the Animal Legal Defense Fund, Zak Smith of the Natural Resources Defense Council and many, many more outstanding advocates.


The panel that made the biggest impression on me had to do with the state of animal law in China, which is to say none at all. Presented by Paul Littlefair of RSPCA International and Amanda Whitfort, who teaches law at the University of Hong Kong, the session covered the legal and cultural hurdles animal advocates must overcome in Asia. In mainland China, no laws exist to protect animals other than animals living in the wild. Paul Littlefair offered one example of a 22-year-old student named Liu Haiyang, who in 2002 brutally attacked bears at the Beijing Zoo with acid. Chinese officials could not charge him with cruelty to animals (since no such legislation exists in China); instead, they charged him with destruction of public property.


As Paul pointed out, a number of factors hamper the advance of animal-protection laws in China. The Chinese, first of all, regard “animal welfare” as a foreign concept incompatible with Chinese culture. They also see it as anti-human; that is, they’re reluctant to grant rights to animals when human rights are so often violated (sound familiar?). The Chinese also point out the hypocrisy inherent in working to help animals when billions of animals are slaughtered for food each year.


None of this means that animal activists should give up fighting for animals in China, of course. In fact, one bright spot Paul mentioned is that the Chinese are becoming more accustomed to having companion animals, which means they are beginning to see animals are more than simply commodities. If they can see that their dog or cat has feelings, perhaps there’s hope. That may seem like a very small advance, but it is a start.


The One Earth: Globalism & Animal Law conference was hosted by the Student Animal Legal Defense Fund (SALDF) of Lewis & Clark Law School.

A recent editorial on Dissident Voice juxtaposes the fear animal researchers feel when confronted by protesters with the pain and terror animals experience in lab experiments.


Interestingly, the article was authored by Dan Kapelovitz, president of the Animal Law Society at the UCLA School of Law; Jill Ryther, communications director of the Animal Law Society at the UCLA School of Law; and Jaime Bryant, professor of law and faculty adviser to the Animal Law Society at the UCLA School of Law.


UCLA not only engages in vivisection, but it was quite vocal in its support of California’s Assembly Bill 2296, which Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed into law last month. The law, which takes effect immediately, provides new penalties for those who target the homes and families of academic researchers, in particular those who use animals in their research. It makes it a misdemeanor to trespass on the home property of an academic researcher “for the purpose of chilling, preventing the exercise of, or interfering with the researcher’s academic freedom,” and it establishes a new misdemeanor offense for anyone who publishes personal information about a researcher, or his or her family, in order to encourage others to commit violent acts or threaten violence against them.


UCLA Chancellor Gene Block, himself a former animal researcher, certainly must have bristled at the article by Kapelovitz, Ryther and Bryant, who write: “Every day at places like UCLA, animals are subjected to excruciating, unrelieved pain as involuntary subjects in research experiments that have not been described or justified to the public. Researchers and the heads of experiments hide behind unsupported general claims that such research is necessary and productive for human health, but they offer no information by which the public can assess their claims as to specific experiments.”


The authors end the piece by noting that “laws like this ― whose focus is the speech of protestors ― may actually increase violent acts against researchers rather than diminish them. When lawful speech is stifled by expansive use of such laws to intimidate protestors, activists concerned about imminent and ongoing violence against animals may feel the need to resort to methods other than speech to have their voices heard.”


That seems to be precisely what is happening.

Shannon Keith

Shannon Keith

Shannon Keith is a Los Angeles-based attorney and filmmaker, perhaps now best known for her powerful 2006 documentary Behind the Mask, which introduced audiences around the world to the activism of the Animal Liberation Front. In 2004, she started a non-profit group called Animal Rescue, Media & Education (ARME). ARME rescues homeless animals and focuses on stopping the problem at its roots through educational initiatives, including making documentaries about animals and animal activists.


In court, Shannon has represented such animal activists as Kevin Jonas, SHAC and Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. She is now working on her second documentary. Although I knew of Shannon and her work on behalf of animals and activists, I was able to learn from her firsthand at the Let Live conference in Portland last June. Shannon is a dedicated animal activist with a valuable perspective on the movement.


Shannon, what news can you share about your next film?
Skin Trade is going to be slightly different than Behind the Mask in the sense that it will be geared toward a greater spectrum of people. Skin Trade will have all new experts, new footage, activists and celebrities talking about the fur industry. The message of the film, which is anti-fur, will really hit home because of the emergence of fur in the fashion industry in the last couple of seasons. Even though the film is anti-fur I am going to show both sides of the fur issue — something that I think will add credibility and strength that will be undeniable to the average “Joe” on the streets watching an animal rights film.


It sounds compelling. When will the public be able to see it?

Oh, it’s not done yet. We expect it to be completed by January 2009.


Your activism seems to have two main prongs: your work as an attorney defending animals and activists, and your work as a film producer of documentaries. How do these two influence each other?
As far as being an animal rights attorney, the documentaries help explain to the general public and even individuals in the movement what it is I do, and who I defend. With regards to Behind the Mask, it really seemed to clear the air not only on who or what the ALF is about, but why I defend direct action activists. The media and government unjustly call them “terrorists,” and as their defense lawyer I get labeled one as well. A lot of people would ask why I defend such “violent domestic terrorists,” but after watching the movie the subject seems to be much clearer to them. With Skin Trade, I hope to have the same result but more so with my other clients, the animals. I want to portray the cruel realities of fur but target it to the general public. Hopefully, it will be clear why it is that I chose a career defending animals.

Now that Behind the Mask has been out for a couple of years, what has the impact been?
The impact has been tremendous. I cannot even begin to explain the extensive ground it covered. Behind the Mask really hit home to the people already in the animal rights community and sparked almost this euphoric passion in them. The progress we make for the animals is slow and sometimes we lose some activists and the film really seemed to rekindle that fire we all share. The impact the movie had on the average citizen, not into animal rights, was equally as great. I get emails all the time about how it changed people’s lives and helped them become vegetarian, adopt a cruelty lifestyle, go vegan, stop purchasing animal-tested products or how wrong they were about the ALF. It’s amazing!

Behind the Mask argues that peaceful activist tactics like writing letters don’t work — that direct action is really what brings change in social justice movements. Do you think there are any above-ground strategies activists can do to effectively advocate for animals?

Yes, I do. But I believe they have never worked alone; meaning, when we have seen change happen through protest, it has been because there were more radical factions working in conjunction with above-ground activists, whether known or unknown. In fact, I believe it is imperative that for the underground actions to be effective there are above-ground campaigns in place at the time. I still believe in traditional protest activity, as well as trying to change the law through the legislative process.

People who are not willing to do any of these things can simply boycott animal cruelty, by not spending their money supporting these companies and industries.

I was really impressed with your presentation at the Let Live conference in Portland; I was especially surprised to hear you say police will lie to activists when confronting them. Would you expand on that a bit?
Police and FBI, and any other law enforcement for that matter, are allowed to lie. They are allowed to tell you that if you do not talk with them, you will be arrested. That’s why it is so important for activists to know their rights. One should never talk with government officials or provide any information, even if they think they already know it. Keep your mouth shut, or assert your right to remain silent or have an attorney, at which point they are legally required to stop questioning you.

With the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act and other legislation clearly intended to intimidate activists, what long-term role do you think direct action will play in animal activism?
The repression perpetrated by the governments in enacting unconstitutional laws such as AETA, etc., is only backfiring. Because legal protest is now sometimes illegal or activists are deterred, they have gone underground. Since the passage of AETA, I have heard of more underground direct actions than before AETA.


What do you do to keep from getting burned out?
That’s a good question. I try to keep my head in the game and never forget of the pain these animals suffer. But, I try my hardest to have a good time when I can, because if I don’t, I will burn out. I love hiking with my companion dogs and going out with friends and NOT talking about animals sometimes.


Do you think Spain’s decision to grant rights to great apes offers us any hope that courts may one day regard all animals as more than property?
Any win for the animals, here or abroad, should be a sign of hope. The animal rights movement is one that requires a process that can sometimes be daunting and long. Every time we hear of any sort of inch being given over to us means we should pull that much harder on the proverbial tug of war we are playing here. Spain granting rights to greater apes is a catalyst to rights being given throughout. The day will come when we pull and all the exploiters, and animal abusers direct and indirect, fall in the mud. If we can make them budge even an inch, we can make them budge again and again.


What advice do you offer activists who are interested in using the legal system to advance the interests of animals?
The spectrum of animal rights law is a not a very populated one. I advise that working for animals in the legal field will help to show how serious we are about our cause. It takes dedication, hard work, perseverance and motivation to become a lawyer, and especially to become one not for the money, but for a cause. The more legal representation we have in the animal rights world, the bigger the chance we have to get into politics and make changes for the well-being and freedom of the billions of animals constantly tortured and murdered for the most trivial of reasons.



For more information about Shannon Keith, please visit

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