(CN) - Expert testimony about the Insane Clown Posse will not upset the life sentence imposed against a man who killed his mother-in-law with a hatchet, an appeals court ruled.
A forensic expert testified at trial that 45-year-old Teresa Busler suffered at least 11 blows from a hatchet, and that she was bitten and given hickeys, during an early morning attack in her Andersonville, Tenn., home on March 6, 2007.0
Neither Busler's husband nor her unemployed daughter, Dawn Stutler, were home at the time of the attack. Stutler's also-unemployed husband, Robert Fritts, had been living with the family and was the last one to see Busler alive.
Investigators found blood and bone fragments in the home's washing machine and Busler's blood on Fritts' clothes.
Detectives found the murder weapon hidden in the home's attic. Though Busler's husband used to keep the hatchet under his bed for protection, Stutler told police that she had previously shown the hatchet to Fritts.
In his 20s at the time, Fritts was a self-professed "Juggalo," or devotee of the Detroit-based horrorcore hip-hop band Insane Clown Posse. The logo of band's label, Psychopathic Records, is a "hatchetman," and Fritts also had a tattoo of the symbol along with another Juggalo-related design.
One man housed with Fritts at the Anderson County Detention Facility while he was awaiting trial testified that Fritts had confessed to the crime, admitting that he had "snapped" and gone into a kind of violent daze.
A jury convicted Fritts, who did not testify, in 2011, and he was sentenced to life in prison.
Much was made at the trial of Fritts' dedication to ICP, as its followers have somewhat of a reputation for crime and violence.
Indeed ICP and its fans are fighting a court battle over the designation of Juggalos as a "loosely organized hybrid gang" in the Department of Justice's 2011 National Gang Threat Assessment.
Stutler described it as "very messed up" that Fritts wrote lyrics about killing people in a Spongebob Squarepants notebook.
Prosecutors noted that Fritts was known to don nonprescription contact lenses that made his eyes appear white, and that he regularly wore ICP clothing and painted his face clownlike.
Detectives had even found white paint on Busler's face, hand, bedsheets and clothing.
Detective Thomas Walker, an expert with the Gang Unit of the Knox County Sheriff's Department, testified at the trial that Fritts' lyrics "were related to the ICP gang because several ICP songs referenced decapitation, mutilation, and dismemberment." He also opined at length on the lifestyle and belief system of alleged ICP gang members.
"Basically, they just want to listen to music, you know, play video games, write their own lyrics to their songs," he said, according to the appellate ruling. "They have to live the life of a good Juggalo in order to pass the six trials and tribulations of the dark carnival, which are the six clowns that are featured on the six albums. Each album has its own meaning. You have to listen to it and figure out what your hidden meaning is for each album, in order that when you die your spirit is drug into the dark carnival and then you must pass the six trials and tribulations to make your way into Shangra-Lai or hell's pit depending on your belief system on that."
"You can take the songs of ICP literally which say, you know, you're supposed to kill people or you're supposed to dismember or whatever or you just don't follow society's rules," Walker added. "You don't want to get a job. You live off of whatever you can. You know, it's just not following society's rules and laws."
Fritts argued on appeal that Walker's testimony as to his alleged gang affiliation was unduly prejudicial and unrelated to the crime. Tennessee contended that the testimony about Juggalo culture helped establish nothing less than Fritts' motive for killing his mother-in-law.
A three-judge panel of the Knoxville-based Court of Criminal Appeals agreed with the state on Monday, upholding Fritts's conviction in full.
"We conclude that Fritts's affiliation with the ICP gang was relevant and admissible because it assisted the jury in identifying him as the perpetrator and established his motive for the offense," Judge Camille McMullen wrote for the court. "Specifically, Detective Walker's testimony connected Fritts's membership in the ICP gang to the victim's murder because it explained the violent manner in which the victim was killed, the use of a hatchet as the murder weapon, and the presence of white paint on the victim's hand and face."
McMullen added that "Fritts's affiliation with the ICP gang also assisted the jury in identifying him as the perpetrator in this case. Fritts had a tattoo of the running hatchet man, a common tattoo worn by ICP gang members, and the lyrics in Fritts's notebook mentioned mutilation, decapitation, and biting female victims."
ICP, a duo composed of Violent J aka Joseph Bruce and Shaggy 2 Dope aka Joseph Utsler, have recently launched a public relations campaign to reform their image and that of their legions of fans. The group and two of their fans, with the assistance of the ACLU and Michigan law firm Miller, Canfield, Paddock and Stone, sued the FBI in January, challenging "the federal government's unwarranted and unlawful decision to designate a musical band's supporters as a criminal gang, thereby subjecting them to significant harm, including repeated police harassment and denial of employment."
In a statement on their website, the duo defends the juggalo subculture as a "family" rather than a "gang".
The misguided listing of Juggalos as a gang has "had a crippling negative impact on our lives causing some us to lose our jobs and in some circumstances, even our children," according to a statement on the website juggalosfightback.com.
"We are not a threat to society and have no interest to commit crimes or disrupt society in any way," the statement adds. "In fact, much like you, we oppose those who would conduct such activities. Yes, it is true that there may be a few 'bad seeds' amongst Juggalos, but can the dame no be said for any large group of people."