Cleveland kidnapper Ariel Castro blames porn addiction. Credible?

Research is sparse on whether there's a link between addiction to pornography and violent sexual behavior, and defense lawyers usually shy away from asserting one. But it does crop up in criminal trials, as it did this week during sentencing for Ariel Castro.

By , Staff writer

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    Ariel Castro (c.) adjusts his glasses during the sentencing phase of his trial in Cleveland on Aug. 1. Defense attorneys Craig Weintraub (l.) and Jaye Schlachet listen. Mr. Castro received life in prison without parole, plus 1,000 years, for the kidnapping, torture, and abuse of three local women.
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Before Cleveland kidnapper Ariel Castro stood to receive his sentence of life in prison without parole Thursday, he struggled to try to put his crimes – the repeated rape and torture of three captive women for about a decade – in a context for the judge and those in the courtroom. 

“I believe I am addicted to pornography to a point that it really makes me impulsive and I don’t realize what I’m doing is wrong. I’m not trying to make excuses,” he said. Mr. Castro said his habit of watching pornography for two to three hours a day stems from what he says was his own sexual abuse as a child. 

“I am a good person, and I hope [people] find it in their hearts to forgive me and do a research on people who have addictions so they can see how their addiction takes over their lives,” he later added.

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While it's known that people can become addicted to pornography, the link between porn addiction and violent behavior is a tenuous one at best, say those who study sexual violence. Moreover, it is not often used as a defense in criminal cases, probably because it would offend most jurors' sensibilities – even if the defendant claims that the porn addiction stems from his own sexual abuse in childhood.

"Most of humanity is not prepared to accept [that] you can be hard-wired as a child in a way that it manifests itself later on in such violence” against others, says Daniel Coyne, a criminal lawyer who oversees the sexual violence clinic at the Chicago-Kent College of Law at the Illinois Institute of Technology.

Castro’s sentence, which includes 1,000 extra years, formally ends the ordeal of Michelle Knight, Amanda Berry, and Gina DeJesus, who were rescued in early May after being imprisoned for years in Castro's Cleveland home, where they endured physical, sexual, and emotional abuse. The evidence against Castro was so overwhelming that he accepted a plea agreement to avoid the death penalty. He pleaded guilty to 937 criminal counts of kidnapping and rape, among other charges.

But even if the case had gone to trial, Castro's lawyers would probably not have argued in court that their client suffers from a pornography addiction, or that he was abused as a child, says Mr. Coyne. Given the mountain of evidence against him detailing years of abuse, such a defense would risk being considered "offensive," he says. “It would be hard to mitigate anything else than a de facto life sentence."

Most researchers do not acknowledge a causal link between watching pornography and violent behavior, especially sexual violence. There is not enough data about real-world pornography users to establish a link, they say. Existing studies look mainly at any connections between violent images of any sort (whether sexual in nature or not) and subsequent violent behavior in the beholder. 

“You frequently hear claims of [pornography’s] effects and find anecdotal evidence of it where it seems to have been a factor … but the evidence that hostility or violence results from porn is very weak,” says Ronald Weitzer, a sociology professor at George Washington University in Washington, who researches the sex industry.

More likely, he says, Castro is using his interest in pornography “to justify his behavior.” “The fact that this [abuse of the women] went on for years, more than a decade, and was systematic, and they were imprisoned as slaves … to say that exposure to porn had anything to do with it, most academics would laugh at that connection,” Dr. Weizer says.

Still, pornography addiction tends to crop up in criminal trials that involve sexual violence more often than in trials involving other forms of violence, such as armed robbery or gangland homicide, Coyne says. That is because sexual predators tend to see themselves as victims, especially if they were sexually assaulted when they were young.

While pornography “is not often used as a basis of a defense, in many trials where famous killers have been caught, there is often mention [that] they engaged in pornography,” notes Allison Cotton, a criminologist at the Metropolitan State University of Denver. Defendants like Castro are often “detached from reality” as a result of early abuse, which they say is manifested through pornography, she says.

“People tend to assume [that] people who commit heinous crimes have the same moral base as all of us, but more often than not they have not grown up in the world most of us have,” she says.

In addition to professing a pornography addiction, Castro made several outrageous claims Thursday, including an assertion that some of the sex with the women was consensual and that “harmony” existed in his home, despite evidence of torture and rape.

Coyne says such claims are common in sentencing hearings, especially when the defendant faces insurmountable charges and a sentence of life in prison.

“Normal human behavior is to salvage some sort of human dignity you might have,” he says. 

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